The fairway was newly mown and welcoming; a yellow flag, 350 yards away, flickered in the chill breeze descending off Dartmoor as the sun made an appearance through wispy clouds. With driver in hand and provisional ball in pocket I stepped on to the first tee at Okehampton Golf Club and, for the first time in a couple of months, attempted to hit a golf ball further than the seven yards available in the back garden. What a relief to swing that club, not just because the ball was soon airborne in vaguely the right direction; here was a glimmer that life might one day return to normal.
The club pro, Ashley, had greeted us on the first tee. They do not usually have a starter at Okehampton, perhaps the friendliest, unstuffiest club in Devon. But this felt like a special occasion; the club was coming back to life and so too were its golfers. The course was in superb condition, the fairways neatly manicured, the bluebells in bloom, the greens fast and true and treacherous (still). Ricki, the course manager, had still been out there cutting the grass at 9pm on Tuesday to make sure everything was perfect; neither he nor the greenkeeper, Mike, had been furloughed; instead this pair had obviously been busy over the past two months.
Ashley has not sold any golf gear in that time or given any lessons but he was beaming anyway now that the course was reopening. He was also there to remind us of the new regulations if necessary. In fact the members had already received precise instructions from the secretary, Bev, with a clarity that seems to have escaped some of our leaders in Westminster. At some courses it is frowned upon to put golf shoes on in the car park. But now this has become compulsory at Okehampton; the changing rooms are out of bounds.
Only members are allowed to play at the moment, either on their own or in a two-ball. The toilets will be locked at 5pm. Players should not arrive more than 10 minutes before a pre-booked tee time. They should be a minimum of two metres apart throughout. The rakes have been removed from the sand bunkers – though there are none after the fourth hole at Okehampton – so have the scoops to recover the ball from the ditch or the West Okement river; flag sticks should not be removed; only handle your own ball(s); there should be no handshakes and at the end of the round “return to your car and make your way home”.
At the moment no more than four rounds a week are available for any individual. No informal roll-ups – and they like their roll-ups up here – are permitted. It’s all crystal clear. It may sound draconian but once under way all these restrictions seemed to melt away into the distant undergrowth rather like a few of our golf balls. I may have touched the flagpole a couple of times without thinking but don’t tell Ashley.
Gavin and I played 18 holes, which was a bit of a luxury. Ashley explained how at larger clubs in the county at Exeter and Tiverton it was possible to play only nine because the demand to resume golfing was so great among members. But Okehampton is small and beautiful; there was barely a slot available on Wednesday morning and that remains the case for the rest of the week, yet they can still fit everyone in.
Bev was in optimistic mood but then she usually is. She runs an efficient, cheerful operation that allows no slack and few overheads. Only two of her staff had been furloughed, her assistant and a cleaner; she has been liaising constantly with the pro, the captain and the club’s caterer, who has diversified successfully by delivering a wide variety of dinners and lunches around the town. She was also grateful that the members have been paying their subs come what may. She was confident that the club would come through this crisis relatively unscathed, but that may not be the case everywhere.
Out on the course we ignored such weighty matters. It was such a delight just to be there, breathing the fresh air and fretting about nothing more important than avoiding the water on the valley holes. As an old sportsman I like a bit of competition and I have had enough of being beaten at cribbage and scrabble recently, but Gavin and I did not bother with a card or a contest. We just revelled in our new-found freedom and the odd good shot. On the last hole we touched putters – from a two metre distance, of course – and then headed for home. The pandemic had barely warranted a mention, but were the bluebells a little later this year?