Can we hold qualifying events? What do the Rules of Golf say? And how can we do it safely? Steve Carroll delves into competitions in a post-lockdown world

It didn’t take long. Maybe it’s the weather, maybe the delight and novelty at getting back on the course – after clubs were shut for nearly two months – is beginning to wane.

Maybe players are starting to just hanker for a score that counts. As clubs in England get into their third week back since the restart, and those in Scotland will hopefully follow Wales and Northern Ireland into action at the end of this week, the lure of competitions is starting to grow stronger.

Some clubs have already taken their first tentative steps back into the championship arena. But for those thinking about dipping their toes into the water, we’ve laid out the key points clubs and golfers need to think about if players are going to start winning trophies in a coronavirus-restricted world…

Can we actually hold competitions?

The UK’s governing bodies – the R&A, England Golf, Scottish Golf, and Wales Golf – initially recommended non-competition play during the initial period that golf was played following the easing of coronavirus lockdown restrictions.

Guidelines were put in place should clubs wish to hold events.

The R&A’s guidance advised that “stroke play competitions involving players in different groups are avoided.

“If competitive stroke play is played, a method of scoring needs to be used that does not require any handling or exchanging of scorecards.”

We’ll get on to nuts and bolts of that a little bit later on.

But when England Golf advised that three and fourball play could resume, they also said: “Clubs may choose to run competitions provided social distancing and safety regulations can be strictly observed at all times.”

The situation is different in Northern Ireland where, in the protocol for clubs to follow in Step 1 of the Northern Ireland Executive’s plan for moving out of lockdown, the Golfing Union of Ireland insist play is currently restricted to “casual golf only (no club competitions or opens)”.

What do the Rules of Golf say?

Some temporary provisions are already in place and were agreed by the R&A shortly before the start of lockdown in late March. They were then re-iterated and updated at the end of April.

So, while you might have initially thought there could be a clash with Rule 3.3b, which covers scoring in stroke play, marking, certifying and returning scorecards, committees can choose to allow methods of scoring that don’t strictly comply.

Players can enter their own hole scores, without it being necessary for a marker to do it, they don’t need to have a marker physically certify a player’s hole scores – although they should do it verbally – and neither do they need to physically return a scorecard to the committee, provided they can accept the scores in another way.

The Rules of Golf already allow scorecards to be electronic which “could include emailing or texting scores to the committee.”

Bunkers: We know there’s no course furniture out there and that includes rakes. The R&A believes if players are taking due care when smoothing bunkers, there shouldn’t be any need for a Local Rule.

But “if the Committee feels that the enjoyment of the game is being significantly affected by there being no rakes, it may introduce preferred lies in bunkers and provide that a player may place a ball in the bunker within one club-length of the original spot and not nearer to the hole than that spot”.

Flagsticks: Aren’t we all happy now the Rules of Golf were changed to allow us to putt with the flagstick in?

Golfers are now required to leave the flagstick in the hole at all times and not to touch it. The R&A has suggested ways a committee can enforce that instruction if players decide to take matters into their own hands.

“It is a matter for the Committee to decide whether it establishes this policy by way of a Code of Conduct or Local Rule, and whether it provides a penalty under the Code of Conduct or for a breach of the Local Rule.”

The hole: Clubs have come up with novel ways to ensure players can avoid placing their hands right down into the cup and the R&A says the hole liner “is to be set in a way that means that all of the ball cannot be below the surface of the putting green, so the ball is considered holed if any part of it is below the surface of the putting green.”

Can we hold qualifiers?

The short answer is yes. CONGU, which maintains handicap systems for players at affiliated clubs of national unions, met shortly before the lockdown – and then again on May 11 – and issued the following guidance for “scores for handicap qualifying competitions (and supplementary scores):

Flagsticks/Holes: If clubs have made the decision to modify the depth of the hole to allow players to remove the ball without touching the flagstick, scores will be acceptable for either competition or supplementary score purposes.

In such cases, the ball is considered holed if any part of the ball is below the surface of the putting green, even if not lodged against the flagstick. 

Bunkers: If clubs introduce a Local Rule to allow preferred lies in bunkers, scores will be acceptable for competition or supplementary score purposes. (Using Model Local Rule E-3)

Please note: The distance for preferred lies in the bunker is limited to six inches and the area cannot be smoothed before placing.

As an alternative (but not combined with the preferred lies detailed above) if the condition of bunkers is so poor that it interferes with the proper playing of the game, a club Committee may declare all bunkers to be Ground Under Repair, scores will be acceptable for competition or supplementary score purposes.

How can we play competitions under coronavirus restrictions?

Here’s where it gets tricky. The Rules may be in place, as well as CONGU procedures, but clubs must satisfy themselves that any competitions they hold can be done in a way that ensures players are kept safe.

Any touch point – whether that is handing cash over to pay for a competition, or entering scores on a touchscreen – carries a risk of potential transmission of Covid-19.

Many clubs that have relied on those traditional ways of administering competitions and recording scores may well feel that exposure is not a price worth paying.

Technology, though, can be your friend. Assuming we’re going to have to deal with coronavirus for some time to come, there are ways of holding competitions without ever having to hand over a crinkly note.

Online tee booking systems have become mandatory at many clubs during this first phase of the return to golf and it’s probably safe to say that the days of roll up and tee it up are probably over for the foreseeable.

There are tournament management software providers, such as Golf Genius, that already handle hundreds of thousands of competitions worldwide completely virtually.

The firm, which powers nearly every state and regional golf association in the USA through its partnership with USGA Tournament Management, allows players to enter their scores for any type of event, and group size, through its app on a smartphone, as well as viewing live leaderboards and custom event websites.

Scotland’s Venue Management System will give participating clubs the opportunity to make their events completely digital.

From paying for a competition, to signing in, to entering scores and certifying a virtual scorecard which then uploads to the cloud, there is nothing a player won’t be able to do on a tournament day from their palm of their hand.

On the course, meanwhile, players also need to remember to follow the R&A guidelines: staying at least two metres apart on teeing areas and when walking to and looking for balls, not to touch stray balls or discarded tees, not touching any course furniture or congregating in groups either before, during or after the round.

If you have any questions, leave a comment below or send me a tweet.

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