Of all the thousands of golfers and tennis players who were reacquainted with the reassuring swoosh and snap of club and racket on ball on Wednesday, few surely heard a sweeter sound than the 18-handicapper Ed Sandison.
When the 34-year-old stepped on to the 176-yard first hole at the Styal Golf Club in Cheshire at 9.04am, he was merely happy to be back after eight weeks of lockdown, happier still when he made good contact with his ball, and stunned to the point of disbelief when he realised he had made his first ever hole-in-one.
“At first I couldn’t find my ball anywhere so I was getting a little annoyed – until I checked the cup,” he told the Guardian. “I spent the next 17 holes laughing with my father-in-law Tony. But everyone I saw seemed to be in such a good mood – and no wonder with golf being back.”
However, physical distancing rules meant that Sandison, who runs an environmentally friendly golf company Ocean Tee using sustainable materials, had to celebrate a bit differently than tradition dictates. “Usually I would be buying everyone a drink at the 19th hole. But as I’ve been living with my in-laws for the past eight weeks I bought them a couple of bottles of champagne and a nice takeaway instead.”
Sandison’s boundless joy at golf’s resumption was reflected on courses across England and Wales, with many reporting tee times being quickly booked out. Chris Winters, the captain of Northamptonshire County Golf Club, said there was a “widespread sense of relief and enjoyment” in the club – with players quickly adapting to the government’s new guidelines for sport.
“The only place where two metres apart even felt like an issue was on tee boxes and greens,” he said. “We used the putter length as ‘gimme’ range for putts. The holes have been packed so the ball will only drop an inch into one and can be easily fetched out.”
Jeremy Tomlinson, the chief executive of England Golf, said many of the 1,800 courses in the country had reopened on Wednesday and praised staff for their “Herculean efforts in trying to keep clubs afloat” during the lockdown.
However, he also warned: “The financial issues raised by temporary business closure during the pandemic means that there are tough times ahead for all clubs. We are not out of the woods on this one. The threat from Covid-19 is also still very real.”
Meanwhile the Wimbledon club, opposite the All England Lawn Tennis Club where the Wimbledon championships are played, also reported that courts were full of people gently scraping the rust from their forehands and backhands.
“Every single outdoor court is booked from 8am-8pm for the next week,” said one player, Susie Reid. “It’s extraordinary, but to be expected. People are sensible and have been good with the rules around here, and there is a high percentage of people who either work from home or are retired, who have been desperate to get back, knowing tennis and golf is low risk.
“Online booking helps a lot. It’s lovely to say ‘hi’ to people we haven’t seen, and feel part of our tennis community again, albeit without a coffee catch-up.”
Reid insisted that physical distancing rules had been easy to observe with players leaving their courts five minutes before the next pairing were due to arrive. “The tennis was better than we expected, even in the wind, although the footwork was pretty off to say the least,” she said. “The whole thing just felt joyous, and right. It’s time. It’s also nice to see the coaches back, giving lessons and earning some money.
“It’s tough to see the club houses shut and bar and cafe areas closed but we’ll get there. People really value their clubs – it’s a way of life for so many.”
The LTA, tennis’s national governing body, said there had been a three-fold increase in the number of courts booked via its online portal Clubspark compared to the same day last year.
Meanwhile Gary Walker, the head coach at Grafton Tennis and Squash Club, said coaches were delighted to be back working – even if it was just for two to three hours a day for the moment. “Most of the coaches were doing five, six, seven hours every day until the lockdown,” he said. “Suddenly, they’re doing less. But it’s less rather than none at all.”
Walker also accepted that it would take a little while yet for the social life to return, too. “There’s usually something going on here every week – a pub quiz, a little tennis tournament or something like that, so the social distancing is a bit eerie. You can’t go to the bar and have a beer or anything like that. You can’t even use the toilet facilities. But I think when push comes to shove, basically you’ve got to say: ‘At least you’re playing tennis.’”