Through uncertain times and unprecedented personal restrictions, golf is proving one of the few remaining outlets for sporting participation, at the grassroots at least.
While the sport’s professional tour players have been stood down, golf courses across Ireland have safely been playing host to members still able to enjoy the game whilst following HSE guidelines regarding social distancing.
Clubhouse bars may be off-limits but the overriding message from golf’s governing bodies is that members remain free to play.
“The message is that golf clubs are open,” Golfing Union of Ireland communications manager Alan Kelly told the Irish Examiner.
“While the social side of the golf club, the bar and the restaurant, may not be available, the sport is open and is accessible and unlike other sports, you can still go out and partake in this and enjoy your game by making use of your club membership.
“Some people are concerned about touching flagpoles but you can putt with the flag in and you don’t have to come into contact with anything you don’t want to. It’s an opportunity for people to go to their golf club and get out and enjoy playing golf as a way of getting a bit of exercise and getting out of the house.
"A lot of people are going to be working from home and it’s an ideal opportunity to escape for an hour or an hour and a half, go out for a walk around the golf course and hit some shots while you’re out there.
We’re not encouraging visitors to turn up at your club, visitors need to be screened or discouraged for the time being and that’s up to golf clubs to follow the advice of the HSE on that one.”
Anecdotal evidence suggests golfers are continuing to play with a club professional who asked not to be named, telling the Irish Examiner: “There’s nobody in the clubhouse, people are literally arriving in their car, playing and then they’re leaving.
“The weather we’ve had the last six months and now this on top… good god.
“What I’m seeing at the moment is that people have nothing left to do and we have members just trying to get some fresh air, which at this stage I’d say is a must.
“Golf is the best thing they can be doing right now. The nature of the game is that you’re away from the people you’re playing with and the golf course is somewhere people can feel safe. People need some fresh air and you’d fear for people’s mental health and if you look at the weather we’ve had, people have been stuck at home since the third week of September — we’ve had record rainfall month on top of month so they’ve already had this for six months under a different guise. And now this could last two weeks, six weeks, six months, nobody knows when this is going to finish.”
Kelly is also the manager of the GUI National Academy at Carton House in Co Kildare and such was the enthusiasm there for golf at the driving range and other practice facilities on site that he was forced to limit numbers.
“We followed the HSE guidelines in remaining open because we don’t have a social side of things, no bar or restaurant, so we were able to continue operating,” Kelly said.
“But we actually found we got very busy because people had time on their hands to come out and practice.
“In actual fact, the range became too busy to be able to socially distance both members of staff and the general public using the facility. So yesterday I took the decision to close the driving range and short-game areas to just give a bit of distance between our staff and members of the public.
“It’s very much an unknown. We’re doing what the HSE is advising in relation to a facility like ours. We can limit the contact and we can demonstrate social separation quite effectively while still allowing our pros to come to work in a safe environment and keeping the public safe.
“I’m sure that’s being replicated in pro shops up and down the country. All our group stuff is cancelled or postponed but there’s nothing wrong in one-on-one lessons as long as you follow the HSE guidelines.”
In the meantime, competition organisers are proceeding with their plans for tournaments beyond the Government’s current restriction period, set to end on March 29.
Both the GUI and Irish Ladies Golf Union issued statements last week announcing the postponement or cancellation of its events up to the 29th and it is understood there are internal discussions taking place as to what happens if the period of restriction is extended into April and May and what the tournament schedule could look like heading into the summer months.
The annual Boylesports Lee Valley Senior Scratch Cup is one of the first significant amateur events of the year, scheduled at the Cork club for April 25-26 with Tiernan McLarnon set to defend his title. Tournament director Vincent Drinan said preparations were continuing apace.
“We hope the restrictions are lifted by then and there’s no rush to postpone or cancel just yet so we’ll proceed as normal,” Drinan said. “The course at Lee Valley is in great condition, our sponsors are on board again and there’s a willingness among golfers to compete. We’re full steam ahead at this stage.”