Stephen Gallacher’s career has spanned the good times on the European Tour. Since starting out on the circuit in 1996, he’s watched the schedule expand and prize funds increase, notably with the introduction of the mega-money Rolex Series events in recent seasons. Helped by four wins, including one on home soil in the 2004 Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, Gallacher’s career earnings total €11.6 million.
He’s not finished yet. Closing in on 600 appearances, the 46-year-old has used the circuit’s three-month lockdown to work on his fitness, shedding more than a stone in the process. “It’s given me the chance to hit the reset button and I’m trying to combat age a bit,” he told Scotland on Sunday. “I’m hoping that taking care of the physical side of things can help me have a good last five or six years on the main tour.”
It seems certain in that post-coronavirus spell that the European Tour is going to look a lot different from what Gallacher had become accustomed to. For example, the circuit is scheduled to restart with six events in the UK in July and August, which will be a throwback to the days when his uncle, Ryder Cup-winning captain Bernard, was flying the family flag at the start of his professional career in the 1970s.
Five of those tournaments will carry prize purses of less than £1 million, each being funded by the European Tour. Colin Montgomerie, an eight-time European No 1, described the situation as “distressing” after the work that had been done over the years to build up prize pots, but Gallacher disagrees.
“These events are just an opening to get us back playing,” said the Bathgate man, who sits on the tour’s tournament committee under the chairmanship of David Howell. “I think it’s brilliant. I think it is encouraging. I think it’s positive. It’s getting the membership playing again. I don’t think it is distressing at all. Distressing is if we are playing for £50,000.”
The tour is spending more than £2m on a health strategy, which is being led by a Scot, Dr Andrew Murray, that will be used to create a “bubble” environment for those UK Swing events at Close House, Forest of Arden, Hanbury Manor, a double-header at Celtic Manor and The Belfry.
“Being on the committee, I know how much work is going into this whole process and I think they’ve done an unbelievable job,” said Gallacher. “It’s great that we now have a start date, even though it’s not going to be life as we know it. It’s going to be tough when we get back. We’re going to be tested. We’re going to be in a bubble. We’re not going to be allowed to leave the hotel other than going to the course.
“It’s going to be quite different. But at least it gives us something to aim at. [tour chief execeutive] Keith Pelley and Doc Murray have been working tirelessly behind the scenes to put a schedule in place and the only reason these first six tournaments are going ahead is because we are adhering to the UK Government’s demands.”
For Gallacher, touring the UK will bring back memories from his amateur days, notably playing in the Lytham Trophy and Brabazon Trophy south of the border. “I think it will be quite good, to be honest,” he said. “That’s what it used to be like when my uncle started. You had a British Swing, exactly the same as we’re going to have, and it is giving us the chance to play some decent courses as well.
“It will be brilliant to be back at The Belfry. Forest of Arden is a great track and, at Celtic Manor, both events are going to be on the Ryder Cup course, which is also a great test of golf. These are all places I played earlier in my career and I’ve already been digging out the old yardage charts.
“Starting with the Betfred British Masters at Close House next month, I’ll probably play four of the six and it will be great to just jump in the car with Jack [son and caddie] and travel to events. What they have basically said is your car is your locker-room as there will be no locker-rooms or players’ lounges as we know it.”
A second UK Swing later in the year is set to take in the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, Aberdeen Standard Investments Scottish Open and BMW PGA Championship in consecutive weeks, though it remains to be seen if that exciting run of events is preceded by the 43rd Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin.
A number of top players, led by world No 1 Rory McIlroy and third-ranked Brooks Koepka, have been vocal in calling for the event’s postponement if the only option for organisers is for it to be played behind closed doors. Steve Stricker, who is set to captain the US in his home state, has said that possibility would be a “yawner”, but Padraig Harrington, his opposite number, has talked about how this Ryder Cup might have to “take one for the world of team sport” by being played without fans.
“When the No 1 and No 3 in the world speak, normally people listen,” noted Gallacher, who played on a winning team on home soil at Gleneagles in 2014. “And I agree with them. I think the fans are a massive part of the Ryder Cup because you can either silence them or they can get you going. The fans have helped create some of the greatest moments in the event. Martin Kaymer’s winning putt at Medinah in 2012, for instance, was holed amidst incredible tension because of all the fans watching.
“That was the same year Bubba Watson got the fans cheering on the first tee instead of the normal hushed environment when he teed off before doing the same thing two years later at Gleneagles. Imagine if I was playing in a Ryder Cup at Gleneagles and I was walking through the tunnel to the first tee and there’s no one there, I could be playing with you, Jack and someone else.
“You still want to win, of course you do. But I’ve spoken to a couple of my mates who are footballers and they’ve said that, in behind-closed door friendlies, you don’t run as fast, you don’t tackle as hard, there’s not the same intensity. That’s just the nature of adrenalin.
“I honestly don’t know what is going to happen with this year’s event, but I do know it’s not as easy to move it as some people might think. It’s the third biggest sporting event in the world and you just can’t suddenly say ‘let’s move into next year’. There’s so many complications. You’ve got the Presidents Cup next year, the Olympics, the Solheim Cup. I think they will try as hard as they can to get it on.
“But the big boys have definitely been vocal. Even Steve Stricker has said it would be an injustice to starve the Wisconsin fans by playing it behind closed doors. I know what he’s meaning because I played with him in the final round of the 2010 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits and what a following he had. It was like Arnie’s Army. There were thousands out that day. He’s well loved in that part of the world.”
As Gallacher is in the Lothians, where his junior foundation is at the core of efforts to inject new blood into the game. “We’re having to rein things in a bit this year,” he said of the Covid-19 impact. “Our dinner is the biggest fund-raiser and we are not having that this year. But we are putting a new match play event on later this summer. It’s tough times, for sure, but we will adapt and work through it.”
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