As the 2021 season gets underway, Stephen Gallacher gives us an insight into golf in an era of masks and restrictions
They never get used to them. Elite athletes must be some of the most Covid tested people on the planet but there’s something about a long swab feeling like it’s touching the back of your brain that can just never be normal.
“They’re terrible. They’re not nice,” Stephen Gallacher tells NCG as he contemplates another round of invasive measures when preparing for the start of the European Tour year.
When we rang the Scotsman he was getting ready to head out a week early, to get some much-needed practice on Middle East greens following a Scottish New Year that had seen him confined to the driving range, before kicking off his season in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.
“I’m going for a test on Friday to travel to get into Dubai, and then before I get to Abu Dhabi I have a test,” he explains, laying out what was required to get him onto the 1st tee under that famous falcon clubhouse.
“And then I need a test when we get to Abu Dhabi so it’ll be three tests before we get there. It’s the same coming back to Dubai and the same going to Saudi [Arabia].”
That’s a lot of tests. But if you think there was a hint of anything other than gratitude coming from Gallacher you are mistaken.
He’s convinced the current set up on the European Tour is something of a biosecurity marvel. And, if you think about it, he’s right.
Playing Covid-secure golf is one thing. Taking that across a host of different countries, all of which are at their own stages of the pandemic, and still creating an environment that’s as safe as can be for the players, is an incredible achievement.
“It’s absolutely brilliant,” Gallacher says. “The Tour has done an unbelievable job of getting us playing. I take my hat off to everybody involved. It’s been a monumental effort from everyone.”
From the Austrian Open last July, to the closing DP World Tour Championship in Dubai in December, the European Tour staged 25 tournaments in 2020 and there are 34 pencilled in this time around.
To make that happen requires a strict bubble and again, at the centre of that, regular appointments with a medic wielding a test.
“You turn up with a negative test and you get tested again. If that’s negative, that’s you. Basically, you can’t leave the hotel. You only leave the hotels to go to the golf course. So you eat at the hotel every night and you go to the golf club and that’s it.
“In between tournaments you can go out of the bubble but you need to get another test. You need to have two tests to come back in again.
“So you get tested, you play that week, you get tested, you play the next week.”
Spending a lot of time cooped up in a hotel room takes a certain mindset and, as we’ve seen from some tennis players getting ready for the Australian Open, it can bring out stresses and strains.
“You can go to the gym,” Gallacher explains about how it works on the European Tour.
“You’ll generally have a bit ringed off – and I think they’ve introduced that you are allowed an hour where you can go and do a bit of exercise, when you can hire a bike or go for a walk, but you can’t go into any shops or come into interaction with anyone, which is quite rightly so, because we want to keep it as safe as we can for everybody involved. If you want the tournament to go ahead, this is what you’ve got to adhere to.”
But never mind how much testing, how secure the hotel is, or how tight the bubble can be squeezed, the ultimate responsibility still lies with people.
“The onus is on the player a lot,” Gallacher says. “There was one time last year, a guy came out of the bubble and went for his dinner at night. So he got put out of the tournament.
“The thing with that is that if he caught it and then came back in, and it spread into us, then the tournament can’t go ahead.
“We’re very vigilant and we’re tested twice a week so you just hope you don’t test positive before one of the big ones.”
“The good thing is we’ve had last year to adapt. This year is just going to be the new norm until the vaccine comes out,” he explains.
“I’m looking forward to this year. I’ve been working hard and am really up for it. Can’t wait. We’re going to three good courses as well [in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Saudi Arabia] that you’re pretty familiar with, which is always a help at the start of the year.”
Gallacher’s 2020 was hugely disrupted even factoring in coronavirus – he didn’t get into competitive action again until August – and he’s set his sights this time at featuring more consistently at the top of the leaderboard.
“You prepare for the week, you’re trying to get your gameplan and do as well as you can. If you get a bit of luck, hole a few putts, you want to be in contention on a Sunday. That’s it. I want to get back up there. I’ve been putting a lot of work in for that and that’s all you can do.”
Looking ahead to the next few weeks, Gallacher said: “They’re brilliant courses [in the Middle East]. They’re immaculate. The weather’s just perfect as well.
“We’ve got some great fields. A lot of the American big boys are coming over so you know you are playing in a proper event – straight into a Rolex, who have been an unbelievable supporter of the Tour as well.
“So it’s a great time to be going away and get back to normality and get back to work.”
What do you make of the European Tour’s bubble? Let me know in the comments, or tweet me.
- Related: Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship preview