IT’S early on the first morning Hermitage Golf Club has been open for almost eight weeks and signs are everywhere that things are a little different now.
For a start, signs are literally everywhere.
At the entrance. The car park. The pro shop. The first tee. The clubhouse. The practice area. The toilets.
Some draw attention to walkways that guide you from car to tee-box, all newly erected under physical distancing guidelines. Others offer reminders of expanded, coronavirus-related, on-course etiquette.
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An email from the club on Friday advised that players arrive no more than 15 minutes before their allotted time and remain in their cars until ten minutes before hitting off. We’re 20 minutes early, so we sit and wait in a near-empty car park.
This is Normal 2.0. Phase One of the lifting of social restrictions.
And golf – like tennis, cycling, athletics and other predominantly outdoor pursuits – has been cleared for reboot.
We’re greeted by men’s club captain Mark Kelly, here since dawn in an observational capacity.
He and ladies captain Tessa Curran are on hand to ensure the course, the club’s staff and its members function efficiently and safely on this first day under these weird but necessary edicts.
It’s raining, of course.
We had, as per Met Éireann records, one of the driest, warmest Aprils in verifiable history and a scorching start to May while Ireland’s pitches and fairways lay empty.
But Monday morning in Dublin, just as many were entitled to resume open-air sport for the first time in almost eight weeks, it rained. Not that anyone here is particularly perturbed.
Two months of social isolation can have a significant effect on your enthusiasm for walking around in the rain for four hours. We arrive just before the first group of the day tee off at 8.0am, having managed to secure the day’s second slot at 8.14am.
This was no small achievement.
Last Monday, the club’s time sheets went online for the first time in almost two months, when the spread of Covid-19 poleaxed sport in this country.
Within half an hour, most of the week was booked up.
In the old days (early March) groups of three teed off in Hermitage every eight minutes. Fourballs started ten minutes apart.
Under regulations agreed upon by the GUI and ILGU in conjunction with the Government, clubs must adhere strictly to 14-minute gaps between groups of three.
Hence, the crush for tee-times.
It means that during phase one, a maximum of 54 people will be on the course at any one time, less than half its normal capacity.
From first tee to 18th green, Hermitage is a touch under 6km in length.
That means physical distancing is not just a requirement, it’s practically an inevitability for those entitled to play during phase one.
Point of clarification: I live outside the 5km zone permitted for people to travel to play golf. My media pass for 'essential work' means I’m here within the constraints of law, however.
Wisely, golf clubs have not been lumped with responsibility for ensuring this rule is observed, leaving it instead for members to self-police.
Those who got out were treated to the purest version of Hermitage. Not a divot or pitch mark in sight. Sleek, true greens.
Club superintendent Mark Harrington has brought the course to pristine levels during its enforced inactivity.
The odd light orange scorch mark from a month without rain are the only aberrations from its lush, carpeted veneer.
Yesterday, we had the added bonus that the bunkers on the back nine were in play for the first time since being relayed over winter.
Full course. Perfect nick. Mild drizzle.
All we had to do was follow the new guidelines and all would run smoothly. Easy, right?
On the first green, after the ball of one of our group had come to rest on the line of another’s putt, I marked it and picked it up to save him having to do so and then walk all the way to his bag to bring it over the other side of the green.
Force of habit.
Barely ten minutes into our first round under new conditions and I’d managed to break one of the most basic protocols.
Generally, though, it’s easy to stay the right side of these regulations without having to think about them.
Golfers are programmed to behave this way. Golf may well be the only sport where physical distancing is one of the main attractions.
There are, for instance, few enough situations in a round of golf when it is necessary – or even advisable – to come within two metres of your playing partner. Tee-boxes and greens are obvious hazards.
But all flags will be lodged permanently while these laws are in place. Benches have been removed or covered, as have bins and water fountains. Bunkers are now rake-less.
The 14 minutes between groups meant we rarely saw the players in front or behind us, let alone came into contact.
And due to the new lay-out designed by general manager Eddie Farrell and his staff, the possibility of unnecessary exposure to anyone other than your playing group has been minimised.
The restaurant and bar are closed, as are changing-rooms. Hermitage’s recently expanded practice areas are also currently no-go.
Simon Byrne’s pro shop is another potential pinch-point, a natural congregation area for those coming from the ninth green or on their way to the first.
For the time being, only those about to begin their rounds will have access and even then, just one person is allowed inside the shop at a time.
There are no club competitions permitted in phase one, only social golf – so no cards are signed or submitted.
And yet despite the obvious limitations of this type of social blackout, the big allure of playing golf on day one of phase one was the sense of isolation.
For four hours, there were no phones.
No Zoom meetings. No WhatsApp emoji quizzes. No sporting nostalgia.
No Covid updates.
Just fresh air and mild-level competition with people other than those you’ve been in solitary confinement with for two months.
The golf itself was harmless. No-one shot a score or cared that they didn’t.
But the day wasn’t without its significance, even if it might seem like small-fry in the grander sporting scheme of things.
The return of big ticket events in Ireland may still be some way off.
But for anyone with an active interest in a sport that just became legal to play again, it felt like a first, very welcome step back towards normality.