In England, Thursday 4 November was a glorious autumn day – cobalt blue sky, hint of sharp edge in the air and a gentle breeze to speed the tumbling horse chestnut leaves. In other words, a perfect day for golf, the sort that PG Wodehouse, the English humorous author, described as “a day when all nature shouted Fore! The breeze as it blew gently up from the valley seemed to bring a message of hope and cheer, whispering of the chip shots holed and brassies landing squarely on the meat.”
Except it wasn’t like that at all. Instead of Wodehouse’s message of hope and cheer, on this day golf clubs all across England were forced to fall silent, closed for one month as part of a government lockdown imposed to try to halt the spread of COVID-19. Non-essential shops, cafes, leisure centres were shut down, travel was limited, and orders to work from home where possible were issued.
By last Thursday, Jeremy Tomlinson, the chief executive of England Golf, and Robert Maxfield, chief executive of the Professional Golfers’ Association, and others knew their fight to get golf excluded from the lockdown ban was lost. “Phew, we tried,” they might have said to themselves. “We did our best.” Instead, they turned their attention to making sure that on 2 December, when their sport was to be allowed to start again, it would be perceived as the healthy, safe and respectful sport they knew it to be.
Now here’s a mouthful of an acronym that has become rather better known lately than it was one month ago: the APPGfG. It stands for the All Party Parliamentary Group for Golf, and comprises representatives of England Golf, the Professional Golfers’ Association, the R&A, members of parliament from all parties, the national golf unions, golfers, peers of the realm. Chaired by Craig Tracey, a Conservative MP, it includes Dame Laura Davies as an honorary member. Its job, as its name implies, is to concern itself with golfing matters – and there is no better example of what it is supposed to do than the way it fought to have the ban on golf removed from the lockdown.
Tomlinson had first heard of the lockdown the previous Saturday. It should have been a usual weekend day, one ending with dinner with friends at a restaurant in a village near his home. Instead he spent most of the late afternoon of Saturday on the phone to colleagues before going out for dinner – and then most of dinner on the phone too. “I was on the phone before my starter arrived and I never really got off it,” he said. During the course of the weekend, he spoke to the members of parliament, to two government ministers, to his own officials. He left no stone unturned in fighting for his sport. On Sunday he penned a letter to the government, the gist of which was “ … to make clear England Golf’s intention to respectfully challenge the government rationale for closing golf courses.”
“I have played golf for 40 years and been in the administration of it for 20 and I have never known a time when the golf industry has come together as it did these past eight months."
Meanwhile Maxfield was doing much the same thing at his home. “On a normal weekend I would have been playing golf at my club,” Maxfield said. “My son is into football and my daughter likes horse riding but they couldn’t do either so they have turned to golf.” Instead he spent from 10 am on Saturday morning and almost all Sunday working at trying to get the ban lifted. “I was up until midnight on Saturday night and up again at 7 to continue on Sunday morning.”
The most significant vehicle for change in Britain is a petition to the government. By Sunday, the APPGfG had one ready. The target was to get 100,000 signatures, enough to force the government to debate its ban. The signatories came very quickly. Thousands first, then tens of thousands, finally hundreds of thousands. In little more than 24 hours nearly 300,000 signatures had been appended to the petition to reconsider the ban on golf – and tennis.
“The thing I missed most during the first lockdown was being unable to play tennis, a game in which the players (in singles) are separated by yards of fresh air,” Matthew Syed, a columnist in The Times, wrote. “COVID is a fiendish virus but it cannot jump that far.” The same reasoning might apply to those playing golf. Indeed, at times two golfers might be significantly further apart than tennis players, as much as 150 yards. There seemed little common sense in banning a sport that took place in the open air and provided mental therapy at a time when mental health has become such an important issue.
It didn’t help golfers in England that the ban applied only to them. In matters to do with COVID-19, the governments of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland make their own decisions. Golfers in Wales, for example, were able to resume in their country today, Monday 9 November.
Last Monday, two days after the
lockdown announcement, “it seemed as though we were hitting all the right notes,”
Maxfield said. A letter had been sent to the prime minister and signed by most
members of the APPGfG outlining the case for removing golf from the lockdown.
That evening a government minister gave the campaign a boost, writing on social
media that it was likely that golf and tennis would be excluded from the ban.
Come Tuesday morning, he apologised. Golf and tennis were not to be spared.
Offered the chance to unpick the terms of the lockdown, Prime Minister Boris
Johnson declined, saying that to tinker with some parts of the lockdown would
make it unfair and even more difficult to follow than before.
Looking back on his part in the
campaign, Tomlinson said: “I am tired and disappointed. I thought the golfing
fraternity rallied well and we were told we were doing well. To have (government)
people at that level talking about golf was incredible.”
Maxfield pointed out that
some good had come out of this episode even if it had failed in its
intent. “I have played golf for 40 years and been in the administration of
it for 20 and I have never known a time when the golf industry has come
together as it did these past eight months. Our game is fragmented and
disjointed but this year the power of the collective has made the difference.
We have released joint statements, devised common rules, stamped on those that
disobey the rules together and sung the benefits of golf from every rooftop at
At this he paused, as if to gather
breath, before concluding: “The real success for our game is that we have
all come together like never before.”