Saurabh Duggal and Robin Bose
It’s been a while since Jeev Milkha Singh arrived at a golf course with bated anticipation. The previous instance was the final day of the 2012 Scottish Open when he arrived at the Castle Stuart Golf Links in Inverness five shots behind the lead. The thrill of catching up with Francesco Molinari and going past in a playoff rivalled the “kid in the candy store” feeling on Wednesday when he left his sprawling Sector 8 house in Chandigarh for the Chandigarh Golf Club (CGC).
“Emerging from lockdown and the golf course reopening after two months, it was as if I wanted to make the most of every moment,” said Singh.
The four-time winner on the European Tour called it “day One of liberation”.
“Getting back on the course which has made you has to be respected,” said Singh.
He had to go through the protocols that reflect the new reality—he wore a mask, his temperature was checked, and his golf cart was sanitized with bleach—before Singh could enter the club.
Unlike the Delhi Golf Club, which also reopened on Wednesday and has allowed caddies in protective gear and a severely limited role, the CGC has barred them till further notice as quite a few of the caddies reside in containment zones. With no men on the bag, Singh and his three playing partners arrived at 10.45am and hit the range 15 minutes later to strike balls after choosing bays that ensured social distancing. Tee-off was at 11.30am with the four taking turns to drive the cart, as per the new norm, and the rest reaching the ball’s landing area on foot. Reaching out for the rake to smoothen the bunker is also a thing of the past as a player now has to manually level the sand with his shoe after completing a bunker shot.
Amid regular sanitisation of hands and clubs every few holes, Singh and his partners finished nine holes a little earlier than the normal two-and-half hours as tee times have been kept at a 15-minute gap.
A novelty on the greens had Singh gushing. With players forbidden to touch the flag or put their hands into the cup to extricate the ball, the CGC has installed discs on the flag staff about three feet from the ground. After finishing a putt, all a player needs to do is to lift the disc with the putter to get the ball out.
Two-time European Tour winner Shubhankar Sharma also hit the course with playing partners Karandeep Kochhar and Rohan Kathuria.
“This is the longest I have been away from golf since I started playing. “I can’t explain the excitement we have for being together at the course after a long time. It was tough to stay away but now that we are back, it will help us get into the groove for tournaments,” said Sharma. It was more enjoyment than counting scores, but when Kochhar, a winner on the domestic tour, beat his fancied rival Sharma, there were fist pumps followed by virtual high fives from where they stood on the green.
Maintaining distance on the course was like “walking on egg shells” for Shiv Kapur, who teed off at DGC. “There is a fear of doing anything wrong,” he said. Playing nine holes at the Lodhi Course under similar rules as the ones at CGC, Kapur felt the social angle, especially during practice, had reduced. “Like it or not, it’s pretty much get on and off the course with people no more sitting around (over food and drinks) chatting before and after a round. There’s a sense of eeriness as if one is playing an altogether new sport.”
From a professional’s perspective, the changes may become routine after a while but the role of caddies and playing with masks on may have to be reconsidered when competitive golf resumes.
Singh was tempted to remove the mask, especially during tee-off, as it hampered both his vision and his breathing. Kapur did take the mask off when he had to play a shot because the elastic bands hurt his ears; he kept the mask on between shots.
“I don’t see masks being put to use in tournaments at least while taking a shot. As for caddies, it will be interesting to see their role as we work as a team,” said Kapur.
One regular at the CGC was missing. Singh’s father, the legendary sprinter Milkha Singh is 90, and according to the new restrictions, only players below the age of 65 are allowed on the course.
“Because of his age, he is little bit scared to come out in this scenario,” Singh said. “I was also given instructions to remain safe, sanitize time to time and maintain social distancing, as I have old parents and a young kid at home. We will get used to playing in this scenario, with restrictions.”
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