Golf and covid: the new abnormal

At least the lockdown spared us the torture of golf. Tasting an unfamiliar hint of serenity in the mixed salad of my mood, I can only attribute it to an absence of missed tiddlers and sliced drives onto the railway at six. Haven’t played a bad shot all year.

Apparently, this crumb of comfort is soon to be taken away from us, as golf comes back into play among the first tentative moves to loosen our shackles. Despite the fact that of all outdoor games players, golfers must be among the more densely clustered in the vulnerable age group; and, of all sports, golf must be the worst for the blood pressure.

Le Golf National, Versailles. French golf resumes on May 11

Tirez les premiers, messieurs les français! France continues to run a few days ahead of us on the CV-curve, and its golf courses open today. Since our rules will presumably follow theirs – science, like the virus, being no respecter of national borders – I had a look at the French Golf Federation’s list of temporary rules that will apply at least until June 1st, and possibly (almost certainly, one suspects) well beyond that. It was an instructive exercise, not least from the linguistic point of view, and not without its pleasant surprises.

Many of the details have been widely trailed. Course furniture, pared to a minimum: no benches, no rakes – placing in bunker allowed (yes!). No chance to give our grubby old ball a facelift in one of those ingenious twist and scrub machines. Face masks to be worn in the pro shop. No shaking of hands or exchanging of scorecards. No touching the flag. No 19th hole. No handling of the opponent’s ball: alas, the sting in the Goldfinger golf game is now impossible to pull off, at least until June.

When I was last in France, all of two months ago, there was much talk about respecting ‘la distance de courtoisie’ which had an elegant ring of French formality to it. This has now been replaced by ugly ‘distanciation’.

I now know that the device which resembles a miniature lavatory plunger and fits on the end of a putter enabling golfers with a pre-existing medical condition to pick up the ball without having to bend down, is called a ventouse. Nice.

And it seems that in French golf parlance un bogey is not merely a score that better golfers consider disappointing, but also refers to the liner of the hole. Le bogey plays a key part in the new temporary rules, because the non-ventouse-carrying golfer who has the great good fortune to hole his ball may find it difficult not to touch le bogey, in which case he must disinfect it and himself with high-powered alcoholic gel before moving on to the next tee, so as not to endanger the greenkeepers. Where the protocol introduces the concept of un bogey en mousse, it loses me.

Rather than risk physical intimacy with le bogey, the French Golf Federation recommends that short putts should be conceded. A fine sentiment, but one that raises the age-old question: what length is a gimme?

The French answer to this is unambiguous: 60 centimetres. Yes, two feet!

Talk about good news to lift our spirits at a time of crisis. After losing count of all the times I have three-putted from inside 60 centimetres, I tried to work out how many times I could have broken a hundred, with two-foot gimmes. Looking up from my reading, I noticed that the sky seemed brighter. A round of golf? Yes, why not? Count me in.

Not quite a gimme, even in France. Singleton golf – the new normal ? – at Barbaroux

Then someone pointed me towards the R&A’s protocols, where the Covid-gimme range is a niggardly 12 inches. What happened to international cooperation? Haven’t they been listening to Theresa May? Do those tight-fisted Scots not appreciate that a more generous interpretation of the gimme would save pressure on the NHS?

As Laurence Sterne wrote more than two centuries ago, they order this matter better in France. I’ll be playing over there, French Golf Federation rules.

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