25 April 2020: In the wake of World War II, a million golfers, one in five of all American golfers had given up the game noted John Strege, in his book, When the war played through. “A crisis diminishes sports’ relevancy, even exposes their irrelevancy. When bombs drop, does it matter whether putts do too?” he asks. At a time when doctors, nurses, security officers and retail workers continue to put themselves in harm’s way to keep us going during a global pandemic, Strege’s questions are relevant again. The coronavirus has brought the world to pause, virtually halting most activities at least out on the streets.
Sport isn’t even an essential consideration even as the commercial implications of the shutdown filter down the pipe and buries the hopes and aspirations of several athletes, young and old. The disruption in the sport today is very similar to the wartime experiences of past generations when the calendar was smothered under the burden of conflict. The pandemic has been a different situation in that the battle is being fought on the streets and in hospital corridors as the world wages a grim battle to deal with the debilitating effects of an invisible enemy.
There have already some innovative ideas surrounding the return of the sport. Authorities are exploring the possibility of playing golf without caddies, use carts and cups that could allow for the ball to be retrieved without touching the flag. The image on the cover by Bloomberg is an example of one such idea.
In a scenario of constrained or reduced training, athletes face the risk of muscular atrophy, loss of mental fortitude and even increased response times due to a decline in muscle memory. Gregory Bogdanis (2012) offers some great insights into the processes influencing the well being of athletes during an unscheduled break of this nature. Bogdanis explains the mechanics of muscle fatigue, through the differences in fatigue between power and endurance athletes.
But after years of training to retain themselves at the peak of their abilities, athletes are all too aware of the situation. And most of the very successful athletes have teams of professionals supporting them through inputs on knowledge and practice. It is possible that the impact of this shutdown is far lesser on the elite top-ranked athletes, but significantly higher among the lower rung of players who cannot afford the luxury of paying for a team of specialists. It will be even more important for them to try and educate themselves as they deal with the unique challenges facing them during these very weird circumstances.
The mind is the key believes Arjun Atwal. “I feel really bad for all the young pros around the world because most of them are starting their journey, it’s really tough for them. My message to them is to stay mentally strong, do whatever it takes to keep the mental edge because once the mind is strong then the rest will take care of itself,” he told me.
The economic impact of this is also going to hit the lesser ranked golfers significantly harder than some of the top professionals with a significant bank of earnings from their career. We can only wait and watch as the management of the various golf Tours continue mulling over next steps in an effort to salvage the 2020 calendar. And while the PGA TOUR has released a moderated schedule with a prospective start in June, it remains to be seen how they might actually make it happen considering the travel restrictions in place around the world.
“I think because of the economies of different regions being hit, it all depends on how badly each tour’s region gets affected,” opined Atwal.
“The PGA TOUR has enough to sustain, but the European tour will struggle to gain its full strength again. The LPGA too is going to struggle a bit. But in Asia, the various tours – Japan, Korea and Asian Tour should consider unifying their calendars to achieve continuity.”
The reorganisation of sport is certainly on the table after a massive disruption on the scale we are witnessing today. Some of the leading tennis players have suggested that the ATP and WTA ought to consider merging their men’s tennis and women’s tennis respectively into a unified calendar. There has been no evident noise of this kind on the golf circuit, but the turmoil that has gripped Scottish Golf, where the clubs are baying for the head of Chairperson Eleanor Cannon. And the contagion of change is only likely to rear its head in other regions, sooner than later, especially if sport cannot be played for a longer duration.
No such turmoil for the fans and athletes believes an optimistic Anirban Lahiri. “There will be a lot of gratitude and appreciation to be able to do what we do for a living. I hope the sense of entitlement that creeps in with athletes will see a downturn. So much forced time away make one introspect and appreciate the opportunity one has, so definitely the world will not be the same again,” he said. “On the performance and viewership aspect: we will definitely see an improvement in both I feel. People are starved of their love for sport and golf and the enjoyment of playing and watching will spike for sure. Hopefully, the economy stabilizes to the point that sport continues to get the support it needs to continue to grow. It’s a tough proposition but hoping for things to turn for the better.”
One can only hope that there is a wider perception of the positive vibe that seems to pervade through the mind of Lahiri. Optimism is nearly engraved on the DNA of athletes and it will be needed aplenty as they try and tide through this period of inactivity.
“The main concern is playing opportunities, safety and resumption of the tour,” added Lahiri. “Also safeguarding the interests of the tour family: players, caddies, staff, volunteers and the tournament promoters and sponsors. It’s a big umbrella that needs to be worked on to safeguard the many differing interests at stake.”
The complexity of bringing the sport back on track cannot be overstated. As Lahiri points out, the safety of the athletes, fans and the society at large are key considerations and there is no room for haste. Only time can tell how the sport, the athletes and fans will reorient to the challenges thrown at us by the spread of the coronavirus. The risk of atrophy, in the body and mind, loom large and the ones that cope best with it will emerge champions at the other end of this significant test.