If some signs of normal life are slowly returning, in most cases they come with plenty of caveats. The local pub might be serving pints but you can’t actually hang around near the premises to drink them. A picnic in the park now requires constant scanning for spittle-heavy joggers. A drive out of town demands a lock-tight urination strategy.
There aren’t many public places where the shadow of Corona doesn’t fall. Except, as I discovered last week, the golf course.
Love it or loathe it, golf has been in a world of its own for decades, right down to its predilection for primary-coloured nylon, so it probably shouldn’t have been a surprise that my first round in a year felt so eerily normal.
It was a bit like going back in time. To before Corona. And in certain cobwebby golf clubs, to before the Spanish flu.
Since June 1st, up to four players from four different households have been allowed to play together, a decision which prompted audible relief amongst the approximately 600,000 club members in England. And also their paying guests, which is how I came to be there.
From the moment I arrived, the mood was buoyant. Everyone was clearly delighted to escape the house, the laptop and the news. The opportunity to escape reality for a few hours has always been one of golf’s draws; pandemic or no pandemic.
Yes there were new ‘Covid-19’ rules and stipulations. Plenty of them. But if there’s one thing golfers can handle, it’s rules. And the more convoluted the better. So there was never any concern these would be flouted.
It’s also a game that could have been designed with social distancing in mind. Proximity is isn’t a problem when one of you is in the trees on the left, the other is in a ditch and the other is on the fairway.
On one hole, all four of us were fifty feet away apart until we hit the green. Golf is a game that manages to be simultaneously sociable and lonely, which gives it a rather unique advantage for the summer of 2020.
Even better, these new rules were almost anti-rules. Don’t bother raking the bunker because that means lots of different hands all over the rakes. Just leave it in a mess. Ok, then, I can do that.
On the greens, there was no more tending and faffing and taking out the flag for the same reason. Tee times were now spaced out so you weren’t held up by slow players in front or rushed by speedy ones behind.
This was golf, but better. With less of the fustiness that puts a lot of people off.
It raised the question whether golf could be or should be capitalising on this moment in the sun to attract new and younger players from different backgrounds, or making an effort to bring back the many lapsed golfers like me who hadn’t always felt that welcome. It’s a £4bn industry, but in participation terms, a declining one. Many clubs were struggling before Corona, with declining memberships and a reliance on ageing and wealthy men.
On paper, it’s a game that makes little logical sense. It’s expensive, takes an entire day out of your life, is astonishingly technical and difficult to master and provides most amateurs with far more sporting lows than highs.
But on the flip side, once you get sucked in, you’re probably in for life. Yes, trying to improve has sent many mild-tempered people into mania, but on a good day on a nice course with the right partners, there are few better ways to while away an afternoon.
It also has a zen quality that non-players might be surprised by. It requires – demands – almost total attention to the present moment. No bad thing this year or any year.
There has been much talk about trying to open golf up to new audiences in recent years and golf’s governing body – the brilliantly and some would say appropriately named Royal&Ancient - has been experimenting with new formats and shorter rounds with more investment on its way.
Of course, golf has always had an image problem. Michael Jordan, Larry David and Bull Murray might play, but so does Donald Trump. And it’s Trump that people remember. It will never be cool.
It would at least be nice to think that a more open and egalitarian game would emerge post-Corona but we will see. The paradox about golf is that all the things about it that put new players off are precisely what many current players love about it.
At the end of our game, a would-be handshake became a somewhat unorthodox ‘arse-bump’, but that aside, for the preceding four hours - much of it spent alone in the woods looking for my ball - I’d forgotten that Corona virus existed.
Back in the car and to the real world.
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