Like Christmas Eve with an early gift from Rory McIlroy, golfers frustrated by eight weeks in lockdown were given the perfect bedtime story to stoke their excitement before today’s great reopening of Irish courses.
With the Government’s Roadmap out of Covid-19 restrictions beginning today including the ability for members of golf clubs living within five kilometres of their course there has been great anticipation about this moment.
An extremely wet winter, the postponement of the Masters and then the closure of courses on March 24 have felt like one hammer blow after another to golfers up and down the island.
Of course there are more pressing issues to concern people, but no-one could dispute the benefits, both mental and physical, of returning to sporting activity. Unsurprisingly, reports from clubs up and down the country are of timesheets booked solid, even if those facilities may only be able to cater for those of its memberships living close at hand.
Yet all golf fans got a treat last night as world number one McIlroy did his bit for morale from the other side of the Atlantic by participating alongside Dustin Johnson against Rickie Fowler and rising star Matthew Wolff in an 18-hole Driving Relief charity match at the legendary Seminole Golf Club by the shores of the Atlantic at Juno Beach, Florida, which aims to support Covid-19-relief efforts.
Backed by the quartet’s equipment manufacturer TaylorMade Golf, the $3 million (€2.77m) event was the first opportunity to watch live professional golf since The Players Championship was cancelled on May 12 as the impact of coronavirus on American society began to hit home.
As if that didn’t make it tantalising enough, the prospect of a close look at an otherwise off-limits classic golf course, designed by the revered architect Donald Ross in 1929 and considered by many experts to be one of the best in the world only added to the anticipation.
McIlroy has hardly been lying low during the lockdown and his withering comments last week about President Donald Trump’s handling of the public health crisis in America will have sent rumbles through a mostly Republican-voting PGA Tour membership.
Trump had only nice things to say about the PGA Tour players he has played with, McIlroy included and could not resist a little self-congratulation before calling the return of live golf on TV a “beautiful thing,” which was, well, beautiful.
McIlory had been similarly complimentary about Seminole - father Gerry McIlroy is a member - and last night’s event was also evident in the same podcast as he spoke to McKellar Golf last week.
“It’s brilliant. It's a pure golf club,” the four-time major champion told McKellar’s Lawrence Donegan and John Huggan. “Over here in the States there’s a lot of country clubs and there’s a lot of stuff that goes on outside of the golf like (swimming) pools, tennis courts, gyms and there is a big social thing.
Seminole is a pure golf course. People roll up 30 minutes before their tee-time, they hit a few balls on the range, it’s just 230 yards long, I definitely can’t hit driver, and a few of the members can’t either. So, after a short warm-up, you go out and play.
McIlroy added: “There’s a note on the first tee, ‘Play good, play fast. Play bad, play faster’. So they’re very proud of the fact you can get around playing a four-ball in just over three hours.”
With no caddies and the elite golfers carrying their own bag, the Irishman was keen to put on a good show, just as courses around Ireland will be desperate for their members to golf safely and responsibly in the glare of the public spotlight with warnings of a return to the restrictions that guided all our lives for the past two months.
It was certainly an atmosphere if not the conditions more akin to the first tee at your own club than that of a PGA Tour event these guys are used to as the quartet all wore shorts in the 87C heat and used rangefinders with not a spectator in sight.
“Boys, let’s have a good day,” McIlroy said to his playing partners before crushing his first drive. They were playing skins for $50,000 a hole for the first six holes, $100,000 for each of the next 10 holes and then $250K at 17 and a cool $500,000 up for grabs at the last.
With shared holes carrying over the purse to the next hole and an air of collegiality rather than competition. McIlroy had seemed the one most eager to turn up the heat, throwing in a mic-drop as he walked off the second hole with mention of the $25m he had won courtesy of his two FedEx Cup titles, but the players reached the third playing for an accumulated $150,000.
McIlroy was driving beautifully, though outdistanced by 21-year-old Wolff at the second as the world number 110 swiped his ball 340 yards to take a $100,000 spot prize for the longest drive.
While Wolff could enjoy those bragging rights, it was McIlroy and Johnson who drew first blood, Fowler missing a 10-foot putt at the third to send the world numbers one and five ahead on the balance sheet.
It didn’t really matter, the money was already in the bank, the viewers had their long-awaited fix and nice little gee-up before their own tee time and all in their world seemed normal again. Kind of.
“Maybe it will encourage a lot more people to get out onto the golf courses and carry their clubs and that can only be a good thing,” McIlroy said beforehand.
McIlroy has thrown down the gauntlet to Irish golfers: go and have fun but do the right thing. He certainly led by example last night.