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Postponements, panic and (potentially) paper rounds - How pro golf is adjusting to the COVID-19 pandemic

Golf And Coronavirus

Thursday is David Drysdale’s 45th birthday.

Until two weeks ago, it looked like being a double celebration, set, as it was, to coincide with the first round of the Hero Indian Open. Under different circumstances, it would have been the Scot’s 500th European Tour appearance.

Instead, he’ll be at home in Cockburnspath, just outside Cove, still two starts shy of the milestone.

As it stands, Drysdale has no idea when his 499th start might be, far less his 500th.

Professional golf at just about every level around the globe has gone into lockdown as the world tries to contain the spread of the lethal, virulent coronavirus.

People are living from one day to the next, not sure when the natural order of day-to-day life will resume. 

Right now, this is COVID-19’s world and we’re all just living in it.

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Yesterday, Drysdale and his wife Vicky flew home from Dubai. They had been there since last weekend's Qatar Masters where David came up agonisingly short in his bid to win his first European Tour title. Such distinctions almost seem trivial now given the unique circumstances that have since unfolded.

“These are strange times alright,” Drysdale told bunkered.co.uk. “We were in a shopping mall in Dubai on Friday – which is a weekend day over there – and it was dead. Nobody was going out. Even in Dubai airport, we were getting a 7.30am flight to Newcastle and usually at that time the place is absolutely mobbed but yesterday was as quiet as I’ve ever seen it.”

The Scot admits he doesn’t have any real plans for the coming weeks other than to keep working on his game. When he’s not doing that, he'll be lying low.

David Drysdale Coronavirus Story 2

“Fortunately, Vicky and I are both fine – touch wood – which is a relief given we’ve done a lot of travelling and visited different countries in the last few months. We’ve racked up a lot of air miles and I don’t think I’ve seen so many face masks on flights in my entire life. But we’re not taking any chances. For instance, my parents are both in their seventies and I’ve already said I’m not coming near them for the next two or three weeks, just to be on the safe side.

“It really feels as though the world has come to a standstill, almost as though somebody has hit the pause button. All we can do is hope that things return to normal soon and that we’ll be able to resume everyday life at some point in the next couple of months.”

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* * *

Like Drysdale, Ladies European Tour pro Beth Allen has returned home to Scotland having been out in the Middle East.

The 38-year-old had flown to Abu Dhabi from Australia where she had played in the Australian Ladies’ Classic and Women’s NSW Open. The American was one of 36 players who were due to play in The Ladies Open at Yas Links last weekend. 

A winner of the event in 2016, Allen wanted to show her support for the tournament and, at the same time, acclimatise herself in the Middle East ahead of the $1m Saudi Women’s Open, which had been due to take place this week.

Beth Allen Coronavirus Story

“The day before the tournament was due to start, we were notified it was cancelled,” said Allen. “Things got pretty crazy after that.

“My original plan had been to stay in the Middle East to prepare for Saudi but, when the Yas Links event was cancelled, I booked a flight to come home. I was then advised against getting on that flight because there was a chance I wouldn’t be able to get back out for the Saudi event because of quarantining and so on. 

"So, I decided to stay on only to then find out that the Saudi Arabian government was suspending all travel to and from nine countries, including the UAE, and that unless I left the UAE by Sunday, I wouldn’t be able to get into Saudi. At that point, I booked another flight to come home. I got back to Scotland on Monday and then it was just a waiting game to see if Saudi would still go ahead or not.”

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In the end, the tournament was cancelled, leaving Allen with mixed emotions.

“On the one hand, I was pretty relieved because travelling just now is pretty worrying,” she said. “On the other, it’s disappointing because it’s one of the richest events we’ve ever had on the LET and who knows when we’re next going to be able to make some money. I mean, our next two events aren’t until the middle of May – and, with one in France and the other in Spain, you have to wonder if they’ll go ahead.”

All of which raises a salient point: what are players going to do if they’re not making money? Global emergency or no global emergency, bills still need to be paid, food still needs to be bought.

“I guess I’m pretty lucky because I’ve had some good results in the last few years, so I’ve got some savings put away,” added Allen. “But depending on how things go, I’m probably going to rip through those pretty quickly. There are other players who aren’t in that position and I feel for them. I don’t know what they’re going to do. 

"Will they look for part-time work? Maybe. They might not have a choice. I haven’t really thought much about other ways to make money. I mean, I’m a golfer. That’s what I do. Everything about my job is connected to people and interacting with them. It’s pretty scary.”

Born in California, Scotland-based Allen would also face the unusual dilemma of having to be screened before being allowed to re-enter the USA as a result travel restrictions imposed by president Donald Trump. “That would be weird,” she added. “Potentially not even being allowed back into my own country.”

She worries for her family back in the US and with just cause. 

Back in 2011, Allen donated a kidney to her brother, Dan. Twelve years earlier, at the age of 26, he had been diagnosed with a rare condition that meant his kidneys were roughly the size of a 13-year-old’s. He received his first transplant in 1999. With the median life of a transplant recipient being 11 to 13 years post-surgery, he went back on the transplant list in 2010. Thirteen months later, it emerged that Beth was a match for him. The surgery saved Dan’s life.

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However, with his history, he is classed as “ultra-high risk” for infections and, quite simply, cannot afford to contract coronavirus. “He is super-prone to getting sick and, to compound matters, he works at a golf club so he’s dealing with the public every day,” added Allen. “He’s waiting to hear back from his doctors about what steps he should be taking but, honestly, I’d be so much happier if he was told he couldn't go to work. 

"California has a few cases of coronavirus at the moment, although they’re mainly in the north of the state and my family are in the south, so I’m keeping everything crossed. Right now, I’m just trying to be super-positive and hoping that we’ll all come through it and that things will return to normal.

“It’s just such a strange, strange time. One of my friends, Hannah Burke, is coming up to Scotland this week and we’re going to go play in St Andrews and North Beriwick over the next few days just to compete and lighten the mood a little. But, yeah, we’d much sooner be out on tour, no question.”

* * *

Bradley Neil

Only a few weeks ago, Bradley Neil booked a flight to the Czech Republic to play in the Prague Golf Challenge in May.

He needn’t have bothered. 

Last week, the event was one of three in the country – as well as another in Slovakia – to be cancelled. Their promoter, RELMOST, has been significantly impacted by the outbreak of the knock-on effects of the coronavirus and so an early decision was made to call off the tournaments this year.

Prague would likely have been one of Blairgowrie-based Neil’s first starts of the season. Instead, he’s not sure when he’ll next tee it up in competition.

“The consensus seems to be that the virus is going to reach its peak in the UK in June or July so, for now, until such times as other information becomes available, I’m going with the mindset that it’s all systems go,” he said. “I’m just taking things day by day and doing the same things I’d always do as if I was heading off to play a tournament in the next few weeks.

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“As it stands, there’s a Challenge Tour event in Spain in mid-May, so that’s what my focus is on, even though it’s hard to imagine that they’re going to be able to play all the events on the schedule the way things are. We’ve got an event in Italy, three in Spain, two in China – some of the countries that have been hardest hit by the virus.

“It’s tough. The hardest thing is the unknown. All you can do is practice hard and work away at your game.”

Neil added that he is considering joining the UK-based EuroPro Tour to try to keep at least some money coming in should the Challenge Tour schedule be completely decimated by the outbreak.

“It would be great to be in the position of somebody like Rory McIlroy, who can probably take the next six months off if he has to and not be affected financially,” he said. “Rory could probably go the rest of his life without picking up a club and not be affected. But you’re really only talking about the top few per cent of people who play golf who are in that position.

“You go down the tours to the likes of the Alps Tour or the EPD Tour, those satellite circuits that feed into the bigger tours. What are those players going to do? How are they going to get by? I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see some of them having to get part-time jobs.

“That’s certainly the worst-case scenario for somebody like myself and, honestly, it’s something that’s crossed my mind.”

Even that proposition, he says, is fraught with uncertainty.

“If I was forced to go and get part-time job, even just for the short-term, where would I even go? People are being laid off left, right and centre and you have to think things will get worse before they get better. You probably couldn’t even pick up a paper round right now.

“Everything’s up in the air. For example, I’ve organised a golf day at Blairgowrie for next month to try and raise money to help fund my golf this year. There’s a chance that might now need to be cancelled. Not in a million years did I ever think that I would have to call it off because of a disease. That would be pretty hard to take.

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“It’s also an interesting time with sponsors and I’m sure a lot of guys will be re-reading the small print in their contracts. For example, the season I played on the European Tour a couple of years ago, it was in my contract with my equipment sponsors that I had to play in a minimum number of events. But what if you can’t meet that because those events have been cancelled? I mean, I can see it from both sides. Players won’t want to be financially punished for something that is out of their hands; equally, sponsors are handing over money because they want visibility, so why should they pay for something they’re not getting?

“So, it’s tough and it’s worrying but, at the same time, there’s nothing you can do about it. These are the cards we’ve been dealt and we just have to wait to see how everything unfolds and hope for the best.”

He added: “You’ve also got to remember that people are dying – there are much bigger things happening. You look at the vulnerability of the elderly and so on. There’s where our focus should be, in terms of looking out for them and doing everything we can to keep them safe. These are definitely unprecedented times. We’ve just got to hold firm and try to weather the storm.”

* * *

Sean Mc Donagh

Accentuating the positives at times like these is so important. 

For Sean McDonagh, the silver lining is getting to spend more time with his 13-month-old son.

It’s time McDonagh didn’t think he’d get. A hugely experienced caddie, he expected to be en route to the USA this morning to team up with Lucas Bjerregaard, for whom he has been on the bag since the middle of last year. The two-time European Tour winner had planned to play the next three weeks in the States. However, Friday’s announcement that all PGA Tour events through to and including the Valero Texas Open have been cancelled put paid to that.

So, instead, McDonagh will spend the time at home in Dorset with his little boy, Ted.

“At times like these, it really brings home just how important your family is,” he said. “You realise that there are people in way worse a position than you and it makes you grateful for what you’ve got.”

Prior to teaming-up with Bjerregaard, McDonagh had a long and successful spell working with Andy Sullivan, helping the Englishman win multiple times on the European Tour and qualify for the 2016 Ryder Cup.

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As a result, he can afford to take a few months off. That, though, isn’t true for all of his fellow caddies.

“About 60% of the guys live from pay-cheque to pay-cheque,” he revealed. “There are a few who are salaried but you’re really only talking about those working for the very top, top players. The rest of us are self-employed, so when something like this happens, it’s a real worry.

“You’ve got to remember that a lot of the guys have families, dependents, mortgages and so on. If there aren't tournaments to play in, the players don’t make money and if the players don’t make money, the caddies don’t make money. When push comes to shove, some of the guys are just going to have to do whatever they can and maybe try different things to keep the house going until things get back to normal.”

That, says McDonagh, could mean club caddying for the immediate future. London-based clubs like Wentworth and Queenwood are approaching the start of their season. So, too, places in Scotland such as Kingsbarns and St Andrews.

McDonagh adds that he and his wife have already started budgeting for him being out of work whilst the world grapples with the coronavirus.

“Things like the gym membership and other certain luxuries have already gone. Whatever we can cut back on, really.”

Then there is the significant matter of things like accommodation and flights that he has already booked.

“Fortunately, most of my accommodation comes with free cancellation, so that’s been good but I’ve been trying to get through to British Airways about the flights I’ve booked for days now without any success. I guess there are a lot of people in the same position. From what I’m hearing, there’s talk that they’ll honour bookings with vouchers that can be transferred onto new bookings. That would be great. Flights, particularly when you start factoring in transatlantic journeys, can be one of your biggest expenses as a caddie so knowing that I hopefully won’t lose the money I’ve already stumped up is a huge relief.”

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Like many others, McDonagh is unsure as to how best to approach the next few days, weeks and possibly months. Do you stay in or try to carry on as normal? Even in the semi-rural community that he lives in, he says life has already changed.

“It’s as though people have gone into full survival mode,” he says. “There’s no eye-contact in supermarkets and stuff like that. It’s a real strange dynamic. You’ve just got to hope for the best outcome but it doesn’t look like it’s going to be a quick fix.

* * *

The UK government’s approach to tackling the coronavirus outbreak has been to establish a set of protocols based on different ‘phases’. Bounce Sports Management, one of the UK’s foremost sports management companies, has been doing something similar.

Iain Stoddart Coronavirus Story

“We had the ‘Unravelling Phase’, where events were getting cancelled and we had to organise travel, accommodations, fares and so on for the players,” explained owner Iain Stoddart. “Currently, we’re in the ‘What Do We Do Now Phase’. The truth is that nobody really knows. Right now, it feels a bit like the off-season, where everyone has just sort of downed tools. It’s absolutely surreal.”

Stoddart and his team look after a number of Scottish players, including former Ryder Cup player Stephen Gallacher and last year’s European Tour ‘Rookie of the Year’ Robert MacIntyre.

Calum Hill, Grant Forrest, Liam Johnston and Jack McDonald are also on the books.

“Our guys are all fine with what’s going on,” added Stoddart. “They’re all good lads and pretty pragmatic so they get it. It is what it is. I think it finally hit home to Bob [MacIntyre] and the rest of us just how serious a situation we’re in when his shinty back home got cancelled!

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“But in all seriousness, calling off all of these events is only right. We’re living in completely unprecedented times and dealing with something that has claimed lives. We’ve just got to roll with it.”

Fortunately, they’ve not encountered too many problems from a logistical standpoint, issues surrounding flights and accommodation cancellations having all been resolved fairly seamlessly. However, with the prospect of a European Tour schedule ending up drastically different to the one initially published, Stoddart thinks the power-that-be may have some tough decisions to make in the coming weeks and months.

“If we get through the summer and no majors have taken place, I think you’ve just got to void the year,” he said. “There’s already a strong case for not staging Q-School. You’ve got a lot of guys who paid their fees, played their guts out and got cards at tour school last year who now probably won’t get a fair crack at the tour this season through no fault of their own.

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“It’s not just about the events that have been cancelled. Let’s say the tour does get back up and running in time for the Andalucia Masters at the end of April. Everybody is going to want to play because they’ll have had at least six weeks off. The guys that would usually have played it won’t get in. So, I think the tour should be honouring their cards. It’s the only fair thing to do.”

Business-wise, Stoddart says that Bounce will take this unique opportunity to take care of other business.

 “We’re going to work on some proposals and presentations, do a bit of housekeeping, tidy up parts of our website and such like,” he added. “There’s always something to do. All those tasks you say you’ll put off for a rainy day? Well, it looks like we’re going to have plenty of rainy days coming up, so this is the time.

“I do believe that things will begin to smooth out, though, and that things will gradually get back to normal because life goes on. 

"It always does."

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