David Howell – Galleries can’t come back soon enough

Professional golf, but not as we know it. That’s what we have been experiencing over the first few weeks of the European Tour’s UK Swing. As a lesson in social distancing and Covid precautions go, it really has been an A-Plus performance from the staff at the Tour.

We are somewhat used to playing in front of minimal crowds on Tour from time to time, because let’s face it we do often play in far- flung locations where golf is not yet a mainstream sport. But even in the outskirts of a Chinese mega city, small crowds still means some crowds, even if it’s just a few members at least, purring over a drive that flies through air or a wedge shot that spins backwards. In front of a large gallery it’s the silence, strangely, that can help create the atmosphere, the collective holding of breath can, in its own way, be deafening. Yet right now the silence is not deafening, in all honesty, it’s saddening.

A constant reminder of the fact that the world is in a strange place right now, a sad place, a different place than we are used to. Golf lends itself to social distancing, the young players I keep playing with seem be taking that 2-metre rule and stretching it to 50 metres off the tee for some reason. But let’s face facts. Whilst spectator-less golf courses work, it’s infinitely better with the galleries. There’s no doubt about that. At the English Championship at Hanbury Manor, my hole-out eagle from the fairway was greeted with a welcome cheer and applause, courtesy of a family in their back garden taking in the spectacle. The moment was certainly joyous, and the applause seemed like a blast from the past. Let’s just hope that sooner rather than later those normalities will return, for everyone’s sake.

Grab and go food, marking your own card with a verbal score confirmation, a packet of tees and pencils handed out on Thursday for the week, where just about everything is digital, including socially distanced bananas, eating with your caddie, on-course sanitiser stations, PPE and, not forgetting, testing – lots and lots of testing. OK, I know it’s all part of our current way of life. It’s been a herculean effort to get us back out on Tour I can tell you. We totally appreciate just how lucky we are to be plying our trade once more, so you won’t find any of our players moaning, but boy-oh-boy, it’s so quiet out here, really, really quiet.

Strangely though, the pressures that come with playing tournament golf have hung around, and that little white ball that plays tricks on your mind hasn’t changed one little bit. It turns out that whilst the galleries magnify everything – both good and bad – so the pressures and stresses really are just inside one’s own head. I guess, if you care about your score then it really does matter, and when it matters, emotions get awakened pretty quickly. A week is a long time in golf. The emotions I felt after opening the English Championship with a 64 compared to the 80 that I began the Celtic Open with couldn’t have been any more different. In fact, during my 25 years on Tour I’m not sure such a disparity has been on show within seven days. This game of ours certainly keeps you on your toes. If you’re not careful, it can also keep you inside your own head.

But, you know what, I just have to keep on picking targets. I persevered, tried to execute, stayed patient and controlled, and I hit the ball 80 times, fully 14 times more than I hit the ball seven days previously. I, for one, hope that trend is not set to continue. I didn’t watch the US PGA on TV, I kept abreast of things online, of course, but what a win Collin Morikawa produced. Nobody since Tiger Woods has made a faster start in the professional game. It’s refreshing to note that whilst all the talk has been about ‘distance’ of late, due to the amazing efforts and dedication of Bryson DeChambeau, it was the most accurate ball striker who won the day. Not that Collin is short off the tee, he’s just straighter, more consistent, and so damn good, too. Hats off to the first Major champion of 2020, an epic performance, of that there is no doubt.

My former Ryder Cup partner Paul Casey came within a whisker of that elusive Major Championship with a fantastic performance at TPC Harding Park. Sometimes, when a young player arrives on the Tour they just have that little bit of ‘pizzazz’ that separates them from the rest of the bunch. I remember watching Paul hit a drive at Woburn in one of his first pro events – he certainly stood out from the crowd. Now, 20 years later, he still plays the game as well as anyone on his day. I wouldn’t put it past him becoming a forty- something Major winner. This close call can only boost his chances in the Majors to come, and they are coming thick and fast right now.

All that being said, there’s a new crowd in town, and Morikawa has just shown his mates what can be done, defeating Casey and Dustin Johnson by two strokes, shooting 69-69-65-64. His college buddies are pretty good, too, so golf fans watching on TV, may be in for quite a ride.