The golfer in the car park of Malahide Golf Club is practising the new normal. His clubs have been dispatched into the boot of the car and he is vigorously rubbing his hands, the foam from his bottle of sanitiser doing a good impression of an ad for soap. The more he rubs, the greater the mass of bubbles. To say he's a happy man would be an understatement.
"It's fabulous to be back playing again," says Bill Phelan of being released back onto the tree-lined parkland course in north county Dublin.
The early 6am alarm call had him up and ready in plenty of time for his return to the fairways and, for good measure, he’d even taken the time and effort to polish his golf clubs which had been left idle for the past two months. “Maybe there’s something to be said for taking a break, I even managed a few pars. I took out my frustration on the golf ball, pretending it was somebody’s head,” he jokes.
Phelan was one of some 468 members of Malahide – play restricted to nine holes over the three nine-hole layouts – who got back into the swing of things as the easing of the restrictions allowed for casual play (by members only in this initial phase one of the lifting of measures), with comprehensive safety measures in place to ensure compliance with the public health guidelines.
Clipboard in hands
Indeed, the new protocols were evident from the moment of arrival to Malahide Golf Club where Gerry – who usually looks after the bagroom – was redeployed, with clipboard in hands, to name-check players at the security barrier to ensure their names were on the day’s timesheet. Those tee-times had filled within five minutes of the online system going live, requiring a different type of clubhead speed to that usually needed in playing the game.
But for those playing the game, things are all changed, changed utterly. The ubiquitous signs encouraging two metre social distancing are everywhere (no excuses!) while large areas have been roped off so that players take as direct a route as possible from car park to golf course. Ten sanitising stations have been installed in various locations. The logistical effort has been immense.
"I've been here morning, noon and night," says John Kelly, the general manager, of the past few non-golfing weeks when his duties included security checks and tasks such as turning on the taps and checking lights on top of the procurement of signage, sanitation systems and checking up on vulnerable members while all the time staying on top of golf-related matters.
And, for those golfers, the return to play – albeit of a social nature, with the return of club competitions delayed until phase two of the restrictions on June 8th – at least brought some life back. The car park, empty for the past number of weeks, is alive with players coming and going but without the typical post-round chit-chat or hanging around.
"We've a large, active club; there's about 1,800 members in different categories and, of those, some 1,400 live within the five kilometres travel limit. We've a community club, with most of our members living in Malahide and Portmarnock, and we're here for them. It's great to have people back but the message has to stay strong that the virus has still not gone and that public health measures have to remain. There's a weird feeling about. You can feel it, people are afraid, things are very different," says Kelly.
John Murray, the club professional, has a "click and collect" service for those who had made advance arrangements to replenish golf balls or require other accessories, but the interaction is not what it used to be back in the old days of two months ago. It can't be, not yet.
But there is life all around the car park, as golf bags are taken out or put back in. There are faces of anticipation of the return, and those, taking their shoes off, who have sampled the joys of it all again.
Husband and wife David and Mary Kennedy are putting their equipment away, and their story is a sign of the new normality . . . for the exchange of money from the skins game hasn't taken place.
“I’m a bit bitter they didn’t pay me. Two men, not paying the winner,” says Mary.
“It’s too dangerous, sure you can’t exchange coins,” replies David.
We’re in changed times, that’s for sure.