Martin Dempster: Threatening Scottish golfers with law is way over the top

Clubs and players should be publicly applauded by Scottish Government
East Lothian is a popular area for some Edinburgh golfers to enjoy their regular game. Picture: SNS.East Lothian is a popular area for some Edinburgh golfers to enjoy their regular game. Picture: SNS.
East Lothian is a popular area for some Edinburgh golfers to enjoy their regular game. Picture: SNS.

Golf, believe it or not, has been the cause of the closest thing to a disagreement in the Dempster household during lockdown. More specifically, my good lady and I have differing views on the guidance about travel in phase one of restrictions being eased being a “broad five miles”.

In fairness, Mrs Dempster works in childcare, where safety is paramount every step of the way, and is a stickler for rules, hence why she believes that particular guideline, initiated by the Scottish Government and endorsed by Scottish Golf, should be adhered to by everyone for the time being.

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That is primarily because, as a family, we have followed the restrictions introduced on 23 March, staying strictly within our local boundary other than delivering shopping to a relative on the shielding list and, as a consequence, feeling we are doing our bit in stopping the spread of Covid-19.

I have been totally on board with that and still am, but, at the same time, I don’t see too many problems, if any, from golfers utilising the “flexibility” talked about by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and using their own “judgement” to enjoy being back out on the course.

In some cases, that “judgement” call has been to jump in a car in Edinburgh and head to East Lothian or travel from Glasgow to Ayrshire because that’s where they normally play, which, surely, can hardly make anyone feel as though they are committing a hideous crime.

Especially not when you take into account the fact that the journey has been made by an individual on his/her own and, for the majority of the time, has been spent out in the fresh air with only one other person in an environment where social distancing is natural.

Since courses in Scotland reopened a week past Friday after being closed for nine weeks due to the coronavirus, I have not heard a single voice of discontent about clubs failing to deliver “safe golf” through measures drawn up by the R&A, which is testament to staff and committee members at every single club in the country.

As was required, Scotland’s golfers have responded to mandatory restrictions in terms of format, bookings etc in exactly the way the clubs and also Scottish Golf were looking for, giving the impression that, at the end of the first full week of reopening, it was all tickety boo.

Not so, apparently. While it wasn’t aimed directly at golf, a letter sent on Friday to the chief executives of sports governing bodies in Scotland totally changed the tone around that “broad five miles” recommendation for recreation.

Sent by Joe FitzPatrick MSP, the Minister for Public Health, Sport and Wellbeing, and Mel Young, chair of sportscotland, it acknowledged that the “majority” of people had, indeed, adhered to that guidance but also highlighted “evidence” of a minority travelling “significant distances unnecessarily”.

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If people continue to make such journeys, the letter states, the Scottish Government “may have to put the restrictions on travel distance into law” for the “collective safety and wellbeing of everybody”, with the governing bodies being urged to “reinforce” the guidance in phase one of the route map as a “matter of urgency”.

Some of that “evidence” can’t be denied, but no wonder this behind-the-scenes development has sparked a mixture of disappointment and anger on social media, especially on the back of long queues at McDonalds in recent days and a weekend in which thousands of people congregated in both Edinburgh and Glasgow for Black Lives Matter demonstrations.

Due to the majority of games at the moment being two balls and clubhouses remaining closed, golf clubs are not places where groups of any worrying size are congregating, and both clubs and golfers should be publicly applauded for that by the Scottish Government.

Yes, a few golfers may be travelling a bit further than others at the moment for a game, but threatening them with the law is not necessary. It is over the top, in fact, and it’s a shame, really, that the focus from FitzPatrick, in particular, but also Young about golf’s return is not about the positivity around the game at the moment.

Helped by mental health being improved enormously as a result of being back on courses, the nation’s golfers are generating a real buzz in the game, feeling proud to be part of it and no longer cringing about the possibility of it being knocked from pillar to post.

That’s what we should be highlighting as opposed to nit-picking about someone travelling five miles or 25 miles to enjoy a hit out in the fresh air on a summer’s day, especially in the sport’s cradle.

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