Sports Monks

Frustrations, opportunities and vaccines – how are players coping with lockdown restrictions

For all the riches already won on the PGA and European Tours this year, there are many leading golfers deeply frustrated by the effects of lockdown.

They are among the best on the planet at what they do for a living, but these players have little certainty of when they will next compete and start to earn again.

For some the pandemic has halted a key stage in career development, while older generations impatiently wait for the resumption of what has always been regarded as a game for life.

I have yet to speak to a player who has failed to acknowledge their good fortune at being a professional golfer and they readily recognise there are many people who have been hit far worse by the pandemic.

But that does not remove the angst felt by those unable to compete in events such as the three Middle East tournaments that started the 2021 European Tour schedule or those played at venues such as Pebble Beach in the United States.

Those have been events for a privileged few. For English players such as Matthew Jordan, Meghan MacLaren and Roger Chapman, all elite players in their own right, they can only look on with envy.

Ordinarily, Jordan would have done enough to have been eligible for those opening tournaments. MacLaren would have had no more than a month off between competitive seasons on the women’s tours and Chapman would have been traveling the world on the seniors’ circuit.

Instead they are finding different ways to cope; Jordan wearing out his parents’ carpets with putting drills, MacLaren trying to do a “mini Bryson” to boost driving distance, while 61-year-old Chapman has honed DIY skills and moved house.

All three are itching to compete again. Jordan felt “mixed emotions” when watching on TV as European Tour colleagues played in the recent big money tournaments in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Saudi Arabia.

“It’s good to have sport going and have something to watch but once you’ve competed against these guys regularly you want to be a part of it,” Jordan told BBC Sport.

Last year the 25-year-old’s first full season on the tour was remarkably consistent, missing only three cuts and finishing third at the Wales Open among eight top 20 finishes.

It was a level of performance that would have enhanced his playing status, guaranteeing starts in tournaments such as those lucrative Middle East events.

But when the Tour resumed last July special eligibility rules were brought in because of the pandemic. “We were told no one would lose cards or gain positions unless you won,” he said.

“It is frustrating to do well and then feel you should be participating but you’ve just got to take it on the chin. I would have loved to have played.

“It is hard watching all those guys tee it up on the first three such significant events and watch them all play and do well. What can you do really? I’ve just got to be prepared for when I’m able to play.”

This is why his putter and golf balls litter his parents’ home on the Wirral. There is a net and launch monitor arranged in the back garden.

“It got a bit overused in the first lockdown,” he smiled. “You do get a bit fed up of seeing the ball go just two yards.” Now he is left hoping the next scheduled European tour event, March’s Qatar Masters is given the go ahead.

MacLaren, meanwhile, is taking on a 100-mile round trip from Wellingborough to Loughborough University to use its gym facilities and take advantage of elite athlete dispensation to spend time on the range and in a putting studio.

“I struggled quite a lot in the first lockdown,” MacLaren told me. “Your purpose is a little bit lost. You’ve still got a reason to get out of bed in the morning but, to a certain extent, your life is defined by golf.

“Maybe that’s an unhealthy thing for a lot of golfers but that is the way it is. So much of your identity is tied to your profession.

“When that’s gone for a significant period of time it can be quite difficult.”

MacLaren says she is coping better this time. She is concentrating on physical and mental aspects of her game that can often be overlooked during the hurly-burly of a normal competitive cycle.

“I haven’t been on a golf course since 26 December, so you’re forced to find different ways to improve,” the 26-year-old said. “I’m at the point now where I’m seeing this as an opportunity.”

Like the rest of the golfing world she noted the transformation in big-hitting US Open winner Bryson DeChambeau during the first lockdown. So she is concentrating on strength and speed training.

“It’s a kind of mini-version of what Bryson is doing,” MacLaren said.

“It sounds silly, but I want to eat properly over a stretch of time and to get myself as healthy and strong and as fit as I can be so I’m less susceptible to injury and fatigue. And I’m trying to get a bit of distance as well.”

The two-time winner on the Ladies European Tour recognises she is fortunate to still devote all her time to her chosen career. “Some of my friends are delivering food and parcels to make up their income,” MacLaren revealed.

“If you can’t afford to play on tour you’ve got to get a job and put that ahead of potentially helping your game. These are tour winners we are talking about.”

MacLaren is hoping to fly to the US this weekend to prepare for playing on the Symetra Tour which feeds to the riches of the LPGA Tour. She also wants to support the impressively bolstered LET schedule when it is due to resume in May.

That is also when the European Legends Tour is due to resume after the cancellation of its entire 2020 schedule. Chapman has not competed for more than a year now.

“It’s been a long time sitting around, basically,” admitted the two-times senior major champion and veteran of 618 European Tour events. He has, though, busied himself with moving from Berkshire to Hampshire in this time off.

But he itches to compete again. “Some of the guys must be on the breadline, they haven’t earned anything,” he told BBC Sport.

“Even though I’m 62 in May and coming towards the end of my career, I’ve always had that competitive burn in my body. The yearn to play competitive golf and be a competitive sportsman, I’ve done that since I was 13.”

Chapman admits having it removed is “very hard to take” but understands why last season was cancelled.

“We are in the most vulnerable category and that is why the European Tour board decided to pull the plug on our tour,” Chapman said.

“The last thing they wanted was a Covid death coming from a tournament. You can understand the hesitancy of letting us go ahead.”

But vaccines bring hope. Chapman is expecting the newly branded “Legends” circuit to start up in Austria in May.

And by the end of that month he should have received both jabs and be able to travel to the Senior PGA Championship at the famed Southern Hills in Tulsa. “As Tom Jones would say, ‘I’ll feel bulletproof!'” Chapman laughed.

“I might be a bit rusty going out there but just to go and compete, the camaraderie and talking to people, sitting down and having a bit of lunch with players, we’ve all missed that.”

It is those little things as well as the major omissions of lockdown life that we all feel a sense of loss for at the moment. Privileged as a professional golfers’ lives might appear, they are by no means immune from current frustrations.

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