Published: 10:00, 02 November 2020
| Updated: 16:11, 02 November 2020
Golf clubs in Kent are hoping to be allowed to play on during the second national lockdown.
Courses were forced to close during the first Covid-19 lockdown in the spring, among the final sports to cease playing because of the spread of the virus.
There are now calls for courses to stay off the list of facilities that must close when new national restrictions kick in on Thursday. At present, golf has been categorised along with facilities such as soft play and theme parks.
Clubs argue that the open spaces allow for social distancing while keeping players active. Parliament will consider for debate the issue after over 250,000 signatures were put on a petition over the weekend asking to exempt golf courses form the list of venues to close due to Covid-19.
The petition says that “the government should allow courses to open so families or individuals can play golf in order to exercise safely.”
Parliament considers all petitions that get more than 100,000 signatures.
The governing body for the amateur game in this country, England Golf, issued a statement through their chief executive Jeremy Tomlinson, who said: “I would like to make clear England Golf’s intention to respectfully challenge the government’s rationale for closing golf courses.
The Kent Golf Union added their support to the stance, posting Mr Tomlinson’s open letter on their own website. The chief exec said England Golf had not been consulted about the government’s decision to close golf down, adding: “It is our sincere belief that it is now counter-productive to shut down a healthy pursuit which naturally lends itself to social distancing and is played in a Covid-secure manner in the open air.
“Golf can help us get through this terrible pandemic and be stronger for it once we emerge on the other side.”
The boss of one of the leading hotel and golf resorts in Kent says the new lockdown is truly devastating for the business.
Johnathan Callister, who is chief executive of The Cave at Boughton, has branded the decision to outlaw golf as "sheer stupidity".
"We have spent a fortune making the facilities Covid-safe and there's absolutely no reason to ban what is effectively people walking apart outdoors in a 300-acre park," he said.
"There is a lot of emphasis these days on the need to keep fit these days, physically and mentally, which golf provides.
"For some of our members who live alone, getting out for a game of golf with a friend is a lifeline to them.
"We appreciate the clubhouse would remain closed but there is no risk with two people playing golf outdoors with their own equipment."
Mr Callister, whose companies also run Etchinghill Golf Club and Pedham Place Golf Club in Swanley, is a member of a golf course owners consortium now lobbying the All Parliamentary Group for Golf for the amateur sport to be exempt.
But he is not optimistic that there will be a relaxing of the rules.
"Everything I am hearing is that it is being strongly resisted which is very disappointing," he said.
Mr Callister said the lockdown was also a huge blow to the hotel which the company opened two years ago after investing £12 million in what they billed as Kent's most luxurious stay.
He added: "We bounced back after the first lockdown but if the second one was extended even further, as has been suggested, it would be truly horrific for businesses like ours."
Debbie Huckstepp, officer manager at Ashford Golf Club, who enjoys playing too, said: “It is one of the sports that really leads to social distancing and as a club I do feel frustrated and I can’t see why we can’t continue, even if they instruct us to go back down to two people playing together, from maybe two different households.
“We were just getting back on our feet, back to some sort of normality, it is going to have a real impact, as it will have for many businesses, with the loss of income over the next few months.”
Dartford Golf Club, who earlier this year undertook a major refurbishment of the club’s indoor facilities, accept the bars have to be shut but general manager Andy Hall sees no reason why play can’t continue.
He said: “We can operate in a safe environment. We have a course of 80 acres and a maximum of probably 120-140 people on the course, so they more or less have half an acre each.
“We haven’t had any Covid cases, our members are respectful of keeping their distance and we would like to stay open if we can.
“Yes, the bars have to shut, which is fair enough. We have members of all ages, up to 90, coming up the club and they don’t feel scared in any way and they are keeping socially distant. It is a shame for them. Sitting infront of the TV is not good for anyone’s health.”
Sheerness Golf Club have over 500 members and they will be keen to play on.
Secretary Alex Tindall said: "The wording from the Prime Minister was that you could exercise unlimited and people were encouraged to do it, including with one other person from outside the household. My immediate take was that we would be going back to two-ball golf, which we successfully did back in May when we reopened. It worked really well and I don't see why it can't this time.
"To find out that golf courses and driving ranges were among the sporting venues to be closed was a bit of a disappointment, to say the least, not for selfish reasons because I am involved in the sport, but the right reason. I think golf can continue, it has been proven it is very good for you, good for the mind, the soul, as well as your heart, in terms of mental wellbeing, what the fresh air exercise brings.
"It is a sport you can play safely and socially distanced and it makes me wonder why the decision was taken. I know lots of our members have signed it the petition."
Golf bounced back successfully from the last lockdown, returning in mid-May, with many clubs, including Ashford, showing an upturn in membership levels, but another month without paying customers is going to hit the sport hard again.
The government have already hinted the lockdown could be extended beyond December 2
Mr Tomlinson, from England Golf added: “Listening to the Prime Minister, the news that he is actively encouraging safe and responsible outdoor exercise for households or two individuals pointed to our great game of golf being at the heart of this policy.
“The guidance which followed stating that golf courses were on a list of venues which should close, therefore, appeared contradictory and came out of the blue.”
The chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) committee, Julian Knight, is among those who feel golf, and tennis, should still be played.
“A blanket ban is not the correct way of going about things,” he said, speaking on BBC Radio 4.
“There are health benefits, both physical and mental. These sports are uniquely built for social distancing. They opened safely in the spring in a limited way, no clubhouses, changing rooms.
“We need to acknowledge the enormous expense and efforts from both these sports in order to make them Covid-secure.”