European Tour ready for sterile return at Betfred British Masters

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James Corrigan
·4 min read
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Lee Westwood in action during a practice round at the Betfred British Masters at Close House Golf Club on July 21, 2020 in Newcastle upon Tyne -  - GETTY IMAGES
Lee Westwood in action during a practice round at the Betfred British Masters at Close House Golf Club on July 21, 2020 in Newcastle upon Tyne - - GETTY IMAGES

Only two international sporting circuits are back up and running and Formula One is obviously one of these. “And I’m very proud that the European Tour is the other,” Keith Pelley, the chief executive, said on Tuesday. “It has been quite the journey to get to this point.”

The Tour ostensibly resumed with a two-week stretch in Austria, but those fields were co-sanctioned with the Challenge Tour. Wednesday's first round of the Betfred British Masters here at Close House heralds the “official” resumption after the four-month pandemic hiatus, as the first tournament in the hastily-arranged six-strong “UK Swing”.

It is a sterile scene nobody expected and one which is causing degrees of trepidation as the Tour attempts to stage as secure an environment as possible. There will be no fans admitted on this rare Wednesday start and Covid-19 is plainly not invited either.

The Tour acknowledges it will be compared to its PGA Tour counterparts, which seven weeks into its “new” season has seen several players and caddies test positive. The latest is Grayson Murray, the 26-year-old, who has been obliged to withdraw from this week’s 3M Open in Minneapolis. Lee Westwood, the tournament host at his home course, feels it is an “inevitability that someone will test positive at some point over the next month or so”.

The same as in America, players are being tested before they set off from home and on arrival at the venue, but what is different to America is that so are all the support staff onside as well as the media. While the fist-bumping has depressingly and ridiculously remained a feature in the States, the European Tour are adamant this will not be the case on their watch. 

Grayson Murray of the United States plays his shot from the 12th tee during the first round of the Workday Charity Open on July 09, 2020 at Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dublin, Ohio - GETTY IMAGES
Grayson Murray of the United States plays his shot from the 12th tee during the first round of the Workday Charity Open on July 09, 2020 at Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dublin, Ohio - GETTY IMAGES

“No shaking of hands or contact of any form is permitted (eg fist bumps, elbow bumps, high fives etc),” the directions read. Only one stipulated caddie per group will be allowed to touch the pin and social distancing on the course must be observed. 

The player and caddie will be able to interact together as they are considered a “team” in a “buddy system” on which Public Health England insisted to reduce the risk of significant ‘contact tracing’ and the requirement for self-isolation for larger numbers of people should someone test positive. 

So it means those “buddies” must dine together at lunch and indeed in the evening when nobody will be allowed to leave the designated tournament hotel. It is a far tighter bubble than on the PGA Tour and there is already some whingeing. 

Will the Tour really enforce its regulations? Well, at the Austrian Open, the Tour threatened to shut down the caddies' lounge because of what it considered lax social distancing. Be sure that everyone here knows the Tour means business, because its business depends on it.

“From what I’ve witnessed people are sticking to it by the letter,” Westwood said. “Everyone is wearing masks, staying away from each other as much as they can. The testing procedures are very thorough. I was amazed at the system the Tour have set up. It’s military style, almost. I’m not sure about others but I’m more than OK with the ‘buddy system’. I have Helen [Storey, his fiancee] as my caddie this week.”

Another comparison with America plainly does not work in Europe’s favour. Westwood is the only top 50 player in the world in this £1.15m field, with all top players either in or heading to the US for next week’s £8.25m World Golf Championship event in Memphis. Pelley and Co cannot compete with that. The next five events after this are basically Tour-funded and have been introduced simply to give the pros somewhere to play. It will be an unusual experience, perhaps unsettling for some, but very welcome all the same.