Should golf, ideal for social distancing, be allowed to open for play?

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May 17, 2020 6:00 AM

At the end of the day golf does have a clear advantage over other sports when it comes to keeping players and golf course staff safe in the wake of a virus pandemic.

‘s an interesting time. Golf has often been accused of being too ‘traditionalist’, ‘elitist’, and stubbornly rule-bound.

“Let’s open golf courses!” So went the optimistic heading of a message posted on one of the numerous golf WhatsApp groups that I, by choice or unwittingly, am part of. In brief, it exhorted group members to register their support on an online petition to open up golf courses for play. The rationale behind the proposition touched upon the game’s unique characteristic of allowing players to maintain social distancing, but emphasised on the fact that a large number of people-greenskeepers, players, gardeners, caddies, golf clubs’ operational staff among others-had been rendered jobless.

Admittedly, call me a cynic, but I chuckled as I read that. Not because I had any doubt about the predicament of say, caddies in the current scenario, but because I wasn’t entirely convinced of the altruistic motives behind the petition. I mean, people like us, and I’m not excluding myself from this group, are dying to play. We’re dreaming of the time we’ll be able to tee it up again. And while some of us have been doing our bit to help out those who need our help, our largesse has been largely confined to our specific caddies.

Not everyone has been so limited in their endeavour to help those who need assistance. Pritam Saikia and Sundeep Varma who run the Ultimate Golf Centre at the Golden Greens Golf Club near Gurugram, spread the word and collected a corpus to help out caddies across the NCR. “We’ve collected a corpus and have been distributing essential items to caddies and their families in Gurgaon, Delhi and Faridabad,” said Saikia.

“And the really lovely bit is that even players we thought would never part with a penny have generously donated at this time,” he added.

In Noida, Rahul Bajaj, an ex-Asian Games medalist and who now runs Golf Garage-an online golf equipment store-started a page to mobilise funds and support for caddies that has fast gained traction with people pooling in from around the country.

In the United States of America, golf courses have opened under social distancing guidelines and Canada is expected to follow suit soon. Meanwhile the links layouts in Ireland are already seeing play even though the home of Golf, Scotland is still playing it safe. Closer to home, Thailand has allowed most courses to reopen for play.

I wonder, though, how different things will be when we do manage to get back to playing again. Will I be able to buy masks and sanitizers at the pro shop? And even though we’ve already got used to booking tee times online, I wonder if physical payments will even be allowed.

On the course I know that flagsticks will be left unattended (thank God for the Rules amemdment!), and sharing carts will be a strict taboo. My dad has always scorned carts and sworn by his pushcart. I reckon there might be an upsurge in people using those in the future.

I’m not a member of an expensive private golf course, but people who are, will probably have to deal with no sit-down meal services and opt for takeaway instead. And it’s a fair conjecture that a number of these private courses might have to open up for public play just to be able to sustain operations. A happy eventuality if you ask me.

Sadly, especially for us in India who’re spoilt silly by corporate golf events, that model is dead in the water. Until there’s a vaccine I just don’t see a 100 or so golfers landing up for a shotgun start event. As far as pro golf goes, the PGTI never had a problem with too many spectators turning up at its events, but Asian, European and USPGA Tours might find that galleries at top-notch events will dwindle significantly.

I know that The Masters Committee at Augusta decided to postpone this year’s event because they felt the event wouldn’t be the same without ‘patrons’, but there’s a fair likelihood of that situation not changing by the end of the year when the Masters is slated to take place.

At the end of the day golf does have a clear advantage over other sports when it comes to keeping players and golf course staff safe in the wake of a virus pandemic. But that will involve discipline; unfortunately we don’t have a great track record as far as that goes. I mean how many times have you found yourself trapped in an un-raked bunker, or hit the perfect drive only for it to land up in an un-filled divot hole. It might not be easy to get golfers to comply.

It’s an interesting time. Golf has often been accused of being too ‘traditionalist’, ‘elitist’, and stubbornly rule-bound. Will this change in a post-pandemic world? There’s a unique opportunity for the game to present itself as an attractive proposition to a populace that’s yearning to get outdoors, socialise, and play a sport whilst remaining safe.

Played right, the game might even flourish in a post-Covid world. The only people I’m worried about are the caddies. It’s only to be expected that many fewer players will use them, if the course allows caddies to be taken in the first place. It is heartening to see that a number of Golf courses like the Bangalore Golf Club, Bombay Presidency Golf Club, and Noida GC have been paying stipends to caddies while others that have caddies on rolls like the Golden Greens Golf Club in Gurgaon have continued paying salaries to its caddies.

I feel for the caddies; I really do; I know exactly how bad the situation must be to make my regular bagman, an intensely proud man, telephone me and ask for monetary assistance. Even if we can’t be superheroes like some of the stellar gents I’ve mentioned and mobilise funds, we could certainly help out one caddie each. Meanwhile I’m going to put my John Hancock on that petition. That one’s for me.

A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game

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