Golfers will have to reset expectations after coronavirus
Iain Stoddart, Mr Fixit for some of Scotland’s leading golfers, has briefly slipped out of his Barnton bolthole for the first time in two weeks to pick up post from the Bounce Sport headquarters in Edinburgh city centre. Normally the beating heart of the capital, the area is almost deserted in the middle of the afternoon. “It’s bizarre, really bizarre,” he said of lockdown life under the coronavirus guidelines in his home city.
Under normal circumstances, the big television screen on the office wall would be showing a golf tournament from somewhere in the world. While taking care of the day-to-day running of the company, Stoddart and Derek Ritchie, his business partner and co-founder, use it to keep track of how the likes of Stephen Gallacher, Bob MacIntyre, Grant Forrest and Calum Hill are faring.
There is no sign of the television being on in the background during this particular telephone conversation. Professional golf has been shut down for more than a month. Events on the European Tour, Bounce Sport’s core business, have either been postponed or cancelled until the end of July. The PGA Tour has just announced plans to restart in mid-June, while three of the four men’s majors have been rescheduled for later in the year.
MacIntyre, the current Scottish No 1, is on the exempt list for the US PGA Championship, which is now due to take place at Harding Park in San Francisco in early August. Stoddart, pictured inset, who worked for David Murray’s Carnegie International before setting up Bounce Sport 16 years ago, is dearly hoping that goes ahead along with the US Open in September and The Masters in November, but he is hanging fire at the moment.
“The hardest part for us, just like everybody else, is the waiting game just now,” he told Scotland on Sunday. “The powers that be have obviously been working closely to try and get to where they want to go in terms of a revised schedule. But the biggest thing is that we are still completely in the unknown due to the pandemic as it continues to claim lives around the world, so we can’t go booking things.
“They are talking about the US PGA being in the first week in August, but would we go and book flights for Bob, who we know is 100 per cent in that event, right now? No, we wouldn’t go anywhere near it because until we see an assurance that it is definitely going ahead, you can’t really do anything in that respect.”
Stoddart, who was educated at Stewart’s Melville School in Edinburgh, is a knowledgeable rugby man who is also a regular at Tynecastle with his son, Laurie. Like everyone else, he’s feeling frustrated at the moment about not being able to get his sports fix at all, but he’s prepared to wait patiently for the right time for opportunities to be at golf events, or rugby or football matches to be an option again.
“When you think logically of things starting up again, probably the first sport back will be horse racing without any fans and you can also see how they can perhaps switch on a football stadium overnight, although the players will probably need a couple of weeks of almost pre-season friendlies to get going again,” he said.
“On the face of it, golf looks as though it could work with social distancing and how you could potentially play behind closed doors and all the different scenarios. But the biggest scenario of the lot is that the world is reacting at different speeds to this pandemic. No matter where you host a professional golf tournament, you’ve got people coming from all over the world and, for it to be credible and for it to count and for all the people who are able to be there, God knows when that could be because of the travel restrictions and everything that is going to be in place.
“It is great that dates have been identified for the rescheduled majors. If they are the skeleton, [chief executive] Keith Pelley has then got to sit there and put on the flesh on the European Tour schedule. I am sure he will have three or four scenarios at the moment but probably can’t push the button on any of them until he knows himself.
“I’d want it on record that the European Tour have been extremely good at keeping us all abreast of the situation. Quite often, it’s not long before it goes out to the media, but there’s no point letting people know what is going on until you know for sure yourself.”
It emerged this week that Pelley has told European Tour players to expect a change in prize funds when the circuit starts up again. “We are having to implement tough measures both in the short and long term,” the colourful Canadian said in an email to members. “Many of the things you have become accustomed to, such as top-class players’ lounges or courtesy car services will most likely assume a different appearance, if indeed they are present at all. Prize funds will also most likely be different.”
Speaking before that was reported, Stoddart admitted he had been braced for a changed landscape. “When you think about it at the moment, the importance of a golf tournament pales into insignificance,” he said. “But the one thing that will come out of this is a reset on so many things. No-one – and I’m not saying they necessarily did – will take anything for granted ever again. There will be an appreciation of what they do and how lucky they are to do it, I am sure.”
There are no ‘Big Time Charlies’ in the Bounce Sport stable. Four-time tour winner and 2014 Ryder Cup player Gallacher has been on the books longest, with MacIntyre, Forrest, Hill, Liam Johnston, Euan Walker and Jack McDonald all being added in recent years as the personal touch provided by both Stoddart and Ritchie has proved appealing to some of Scotland’s most promising young players.
“It’s odd and it is difficult getting your head around everything,” said Stoddart of the current situation, whereby players are all at home rather than being in some far-flung country. “Our initial stage was an unravelling, ie making sure everybody was where they were meant to be at home and cancel bookings etc. There’s a couple bookings still in place but, in the main, we’ve got everything unravelled and it’s not been too bad at all, really, in terms of damage limitation in the respect of people being out of pocket. We are now basically in hibernation.
“We check in with the players all the time, really, just to see how they are doing. They are like everyone else in that they are in their house at the moment. They are not exactly going anywhere. They have all created their own set-up to keep ticking over, whether it be a net in the back garden or whatever. Trackman is quite good and we’ve seen quite a lot of players using that as they hit balls into blankets on washing poles. It’s like a crude simulator.
“They are all embarking on their own fitness programmes. Bob is on his bike, Grant, one of our fitter ones anyway, has some gym equipment at home, while Stevie is doing a fitness programme as well. Calum’s over in the States as his circumstances put him there with his girlfriend. The main thing is that everybody is where they should and want to be. They all just have to ride it out.”
The day before our chat, MacIntyre had posted a video of himself undertaking a chipping challenge in his garden at home in Oban. The 23-year-old was wearing a bright pink shirt straight out of Miami Vice, the 1980s US television programme featuring Don Johnson, and took a fair bit of stick as he sent Twitter into a frenzy.
“The best thing in that post was someone calling him out for his clothes and he went back effectively saying he didn’t give a damn, albeit in his own way. That sort of thing is so unimportant to him,” said Stoddart, laughing, of last season’s European Tour Rookie of the Year and one of the most popular players on the circuit.
“The thing about Bob that has stuck with me to this day is that he always asks you for an opinion on things. But he is very much his own man and will make that final decision himself. As they all do, incidentally,” added Stoddart. “But he’s not scared to make a decision. He’s not will I or won’t I? He’s like, bang, we are doing this, we are doing that.
“He’s got a wise head on his shoulders. He loves a laugh. He is very aware of everything he is doing and how to get there. At the end of the day, like them all, he is wanting to be the best golfer he can possibly be. And he is not scared to look under any stone. But you can say that about all our guys, really. There’s a common theme there. They are all head down, get on with it grafters. There is no blueprint. We know what every one of our guys is trying to achieve and it varies from one to the other. It’s so not a blueprint.”
Helped by the support provided by the Bounce management team, Hill won three times on the Challenge Tour and Johnston twice as they secured step ups to the main circuit over the past couple of seasons. MacIntyre recorded seven top-tens last season on the top tour, where Forrest also held on to his card comfortably as a rookie.
“We never blow our own trumpet, never have done and never will,” said Stoddart in his typical downplaying of the company’s role. “We are a cog in the wheel, but it’s not us hitting the shots. We’ve got a role to perform and all we can do is the same as everyone else. It’s the same as one of the players when they step on the first tee. You can only do your best and one thing for sure is that we are committed and definitely up for it.”
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