Martin Dempster: Feeling great, though nervous, to be back in tournament mode

European Tour creates a ‘bubble’ as the UK Swing gets underway at Close House

Close House Golf Club will stage the Betfred British Masters this week as new six-event UK Swing gets underway. Picture: Getty
Close House Golf Club will stage the Betfred British Masters this week as new six-event UK Swing gets underway. Picture: Getty

Iwill be honest here. For the first time in my life, I’m feeling a tad nervous about attending a golf tournament. And it is not even because I’m fretting over actually hitting a shot and probably making a fool of myself.

For the first time since early February after coming home from what is always an enjoyable start to the year in the Middle East, I am covering an event in the flesh as opposed to remotely, as is often the case these days.

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Close House, near Newcastle, is my destination for the Betfred British Masters, which marks the full return of the European Tour since it went into lockdown due to the coronavirus in early March.

It is the first leg of a new six-event UK Swing, with the tour moving on to Forest of Arden, Hanbury Manor, Celtic Manor for a double-header and The Belfry over the coming few weeks.

Considering two of those are past Ryder Cup venues, it is a cracking restart for the circuit, even though all the events are being played behind closed doors due to current restrictions

Under normal circumstances, each and every one of those tournaments would have attracted brilliant crowds, but it is perfectly understandable why fans will have to make do with TV coverage for the time being.

Lee Westwood is hosting the event at Close House, as was the case when the event paid its first visit there in 2017. Rory McIlroy was the star attraction on that occasion and I still smile when I think about how he made a young fan the happiest person in the world at that moment when he handed him a golf ball out on the course.

McIlroy will not be there this time. He is in the US getting ready for a World Golf Championship in Memphis, then the season’s opening major, the US PGA Championship, in San Francisco.

In comparison to three years ago, it is not the strongest of fields, but is anyone really too bothered by that? Probably not because the main thing is getting the circuit up and running again after being in shutdown since the Qatar Masters in early March.

For that to happen, the European Tour is having to create a “tournament bubble” and that’s where the nervousness comes in for me and, no doubt, many others set to be part of that environment.

The tour has spent £2 million plus in developing a health strategy for the rest of the year, and I have every faith that it will be a proper “bubble” compared to what the PGA Tour, at the start at least, had for its return last month.

Dr Andrew Murray, the circuit’s chief medical officer, has been one of Keith Pelley’s key advisors as he plotted these careful first steps and the Aberdonian will be ensuring that everything is carried out exactly how it needs to be at the moment.

“Although golf is back, as Keith Pelley has said, these will not – and should not – feel like normal golf tournaments,” said Murray. “It’s good that we are all back to work in a familiar environment, but things will be completely different with all the measures that we will be putting in place as part of our health strategy.”

Along with other media members set to attend, I’ve already undertaken a home test and, on arrival today, a PCR test described by Murray as “gold standard” awaits. The result of that will determine either access to the venue or a journey straight back up the A1.

I’m on edge about that, having felt very safe indeed over the past few months on the Fife coast, both at home and on the golf course, but more so about trying to ensure I am doing the right things during the course of the event.

One of the most enjoyable things about covering a golf tournament is being able to chew the fat with people, be it players, caddies or tournament staff. There will be very little of that at Close House – or any of the other venues on the UK Swing – because access to the range is not permitted.

Loitering with intent in the recording area has also been banned for the time being, which could be viewed as both good and bad news – I’ll let them decide – for the Scottish parishioners in the field at the Northumberland venue.

It has been a long time and, along with lots of others, it will definitely be good to be back in tournament mode. At the same time, though, we will all be treading carefully because it is important everyone plays a part in getting this restart off to the safe start that is absolutely essential.

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