Fore, score and 18 holes ago… First round under COVID-19 conditions a blast by any measure

Mark Twain once described golf as "a good walk spoiled."

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 04/05/2020 (878 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Mark Twain once described golf as “a good walk spoiled.”

With all due respect, the father of American literature likely would have had a much different take had he joined me on Monday morning for 18 holes at Kildonan Park Golf Course, the city’s oldest municipal track at 99 years and counting.

This was no ordinary round, but rather the beginning of a return to normal. To comfortable. To routine. To, dare I say it, fun. It was Christmas morning for players of all skill levels, with courses across the province getting the green light to open under a series of stringent protocols meant to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Winnipeg Free Press reporters Jason Bell (left) and Mike McIntyre wait for their turn to tee off the first day of golf in 2020 at Kildonan Park Golf Course Monday morning. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Taking that first swing, just after 9 a.m. and with the temperature barely above freezing, felt like a bit of a weight coming off my shoulders after more than seven surreal weeks of social distancing and self-isolating. Finally, the competitive juices were flowing again.

Naturally, my ball veered sharply to the right, the product of an ugly slice that has plagued me since I first picked up a club in my teenage years as a junior member at Rossmere, which is, quite sadly, when I actually peaked as a golfer. Go figure, it never fixed itself despite taking a grand total of zero professional lessons and maybe hitting the range once or twice a year.

No matter. It’s a shot I’ll remember, and savour, for a long time. A real thing of beauty in my eyes.

There is much debate about whether Manitoba’s rather aggressive plan to reopen the economy is a case of too much, too soon that could undo all the good work we’ve done to date. Premier Brian Pallister and provincial health officials, in announcing the first phase last week, said extreme caution is still required if we’re to keep the coronavirus curve as flat as our prairie landscape. Wise advice, which I hope the public heeds.

With that in mind, I arrived at the course expecting the worst. Think Boxing Day or Black Friday door crashers, only with people armed with nine-irons and frothing at the mouth from an extended off-season unlike any other. But the dozen or so golfers there to hit the links were doing so in calm, orderly fashion between the clubhouse and the first tee, with large amounts of space in between.

Officials at the course brought each playing group inside, one at a time, to pay and answer a series of questions. Have you travelled anywhere outside the province in the past 14 days? Have you been tested for COVID-19? Have you been in contact with anyone who has been tested and/or shown symptoms? Have you had any symptoms?

There was hand sanitizer at the door, and markers on the floor to ensure the two-metre buffer zone was respected. So far, so good. Almost as if everyone knows they were being given a big opportunity here, and nobody wants to be the one to screw it up. Golf season is already short enough around here.

Once we began play, it was a breeze to maintain a safe space from your playing partners, given the abundance of space each hole provides. In that sense, golf is set up perfectly to be among the first things to return as restrictions are pulled back.

Mike McIntyre is cursed with a slice that veers to the right. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Colleague Jason Bell joined me for the round, and we were paired with another twosome, a pair of cagey Kildonan veterans who have been playing together for more than two decades and showed no mercy to each other, with nary a gimme to be found. You won’t be surprised to learn they had a bit of money on the line between them.

Jay and I had no such stakes. We’d often see each other on the tee box, and then not again until the green. That’s what happens when you have a righty with a slice (me) partnered with a lefty with a slice (him). To his credit, Jay also introduced a wicked hook on the iconic par-three 10th hole when he yanked his shot into the trees over the famous railway bridge, with the ball rolling back down the embankment and giving himself one heck of a second shot through the graffiti-filled tunnel and onto the green.

We all know hockey players often make great golfers. Hockey writers? Not so much.

There’s no question this felt a bit different from a typical round, and not just because I was picking up a club for the first time since last September and didn’t hit a single ball or putt before teeing off. To quote former NBA star Allen Iverson: “Practice? We talkin’ about practice?!”

Of the restrictions in place, not being able to remove the flag while putting was the most significant. The reasoning is rock solid, to prevent potentially hundreds of hands in a given day from touching it. The natural urge to pull the pin quickly went away before we made the turn on the back nine.

There were some obvious benefits to the new rules as well. I certainly didn’t mind not having to play in the sand on the two times I found a bunker with my approaches. No rakes means a drop is being advised to avoid making a big mess. Fine by me. In fact, how about we just go ahead and make that a permanent change?

There was a festive feel to the four-hour round, which included cars driving down Main Street, past the second hole, honking their horns as they passed by to mark the occasion of seeing golfers on the course for the first time since the season came to a snowy, screeching halt early last October with a major storm. Reminders of that are still evident all around Kildonan, with plenty of downed tree branches.

Once the round was complete, putter taps replaced the traditional handshakes on the 18th green. Better to be safe than sorry.

The holes at Kildonan Park Golf Course have been modified so people don't have to remove the flagsticks to retrieve their ball. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

As for the final tally, I’ll spare you the ugly details other than to concede we both got our money’s worth and Jay rallied from an early deficit to beat me by a single stroke, the product of an awful three-putt by yours truly on the final hole.

OK, so maybe Twain wasn’t completely wrong with his line of thinking. But, at least for one day, a stroll down a golf course felt anything but wasted. It was wonderful.

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

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