The UK Swing Tees Off in Style
“We know we are not key workers. We are back doing what we love doing and we hope in some small way we can entertain you.” With these words tournament host Lee Westwood got Sky TV’s European Tour live action back under way. Oh yes!
At 7am Justin Walters hit the opening tee shot to signal the start of the British Masters at Close House, near Newcastle. It was a momentous drive as it signalled the first of six tournaments to be held in the UK. There have been stringent Covid-19 tests for all players, caddies and officials. Players are staying in registered hotels and are not allowed to leave other than to travel to and from the golf course.
There were reminders everywhere around the course of the times we are living in. No spitting (no kidding!). Stay two metres apart. Avoid touching holes and flags. Sanitise your hands - there are hand sanitisers beside every tee. Players have to wear face masks when they are not playing. There is daily screening and temperature checks.
The summer of golf that we thought we were not going to see has been saved, and it started here at Close House where, in 2017, Paul Dunne stunned Rory McIlroy to win in sensational style, holing a chip for a winning birdie at the 72nd hole. Dunne has had a tough ride since then, losing his playing privileges last season after suffering a wrist injury that continues to dog him.
Westwood looks a little different after lockdown. He has shed lots of weight and, whisper it, has been working out in the gym. His world ranking would have allowed him to travel across the Atlantic and play on the PGA Tour but he has made it clear that he simply cannot face all the travel and quarantine restrictions involved in playing in the United States so has committed his immediate playing schedule to the UK Swing. He says that he has been working hard on his game in recent weeks and he certainly looks the part. And make no mistake - even at 47 years of age, the Englishman remains a formidable competitor.
He got off to the best possible start on a course he knows well, holing a birdie putt at the first. In an ideal world, Westwood would collect the trophy on Saturday. It looked unlikely when he lost his ball at the 13th, but he holed out from off the green to walk off with a miraculous bogey and followed it with a birdie two at the next to move to level par for the day. He would eventually sign for a 70.
He was playing with two former champions in Eddie Pepperell and Marcus Kinhult, both of whom were quickly back into their stride. They shot rounds of 67 and 69 respectively.
Despite most of Europe’s elite playing in the USA, there is a pretty strong field in Northumberland and, frankly, the only thing that matters is that we are back - and that everybody feels safe and is safe.
There are no spectators at Close House, which means the tournament is being played in an eerie silence. The course is in magnificent condition, the scenery is spectacular.
On-course reporter Tim Barter had a chat with Pepperell as they strolled down the 13th fairway, at which point the Englishman was tied for the lead at four under par. “I didn’t know what to expect,” said Pepperell who, like Westwood, has shed plenty of weight. "I have played alright and struck the ball pretty well. All of this is very different. I felt a little nervous early on. It is such a shame - when we were here three years ago the crowds were amazing. I know they will be back but we really miss them.
“I have used the break to get healthy for once. It feels good,. I have cut out carbohydrates and I feel so much better for it. I have been eating lots of steak and liver. I had three months to improve my health. I just need to sort my brain out now.”
It was good to hear Wayne Riley too. “Westy is not at his best today. That often happens when I show up…”
Asked by Richard Boxall about how he had filled his time during the lockdown, Riley replied: “There is not a film on Netflix that I haven’t watched. I live next to a lake and I also did a lot of walking, often nine miles a day.”
Many of the players look different. Andy Sullivan is now sporting a full beard.
The competitors have to mind their Ps and Qs. With no fans and microphones everywhere, TV viewers are able to hear every word.
One of the early surprises was a round of 68 from Michael Campbell, the 2005 US Open who walked away from the game because he couldn’t hit a barn door. He has now turned 50 and has seemingly rediscovered his appetite and love of the game.
There was barely a breath of wind and the greens were soft and holding. A perfect day for low scoring. This was a good day for golf and for the European Tour.
Spain’s Pablo Larrazabal, who shot a 67, perhaps summed it up best. “It’s great to be back,” he said. "I couldn’t wait. To be away for so long has been a nightmare. But hopefully we are giving something to the people back home. The lockdown in Barcelona was tough - two months without being able to leave the house. My expectations today were very low. I have been playing at home but it is different with a scorecard in your hand and no second ball in your pocket."
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