At the British Masters, Empty Fairways, Empty Pubs and a Hole in the Bubble

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NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE, England – A reporter walks into a bar with a hotel booking number in her hand and a mask covering her face .

This is not the beginning of a joke. It's how I accidentally pierced the carefully crafted bubble that the European PGA Tour had created on Tuesday to facilitate a six-stop swing in Britain as part of the remade 2020 season.


The European tour believed the hotel was closed, a pitch shot from Newcastle International Airport and a short drive to Close House Golf Club, the site of this week's British Masters. The only guests admitted were those involved in the tournament, and only after passing a coronavirus test prior to the event and subjected to daily temperature checks upon arrival.

When I heard that I had that circle of trust, a travel official immediately told me – and urgently – that I had to find a new place. And with the bubble recovered, the tour got back to work and started playing on Wednesday morning.

While sports leagues and tours come back into action after a months-long halt caused by the pandemic, most athletes get used to performing for little or no fans. But that is not to say that they are free from research. Their personal movements are closely monitored and their health is monitored as if they are startups about to go public, so great is the fear that careless missteps – a food delivery on the edge of a bubble or a quick shopping trip – even the most meticulous restart plan.

"There is no time in the day," said Westwood, "where it doesn't feel like your health is being checked or someone has been watching you."

Everything has changed for the towns and villages that visit the tours.

This corner of England caught the attention of the British Masters in 2017, the last time Close House hosted the tournament. Nearly 70,000 spectators gathered on the track during the week, culminating in a win by Irishman Paul Dunne, who completed a strong field with Rory McIlroy.

Three years ago, those same crowds had spilled for days to the small village of Wylam, less than two miles away, with packing houses like the Black Bull pub on Main Street. As owner Paul Bowes fondly remembered this week, guests stood shoulder to shoulder in his place that week with some of the roughly 2,000 residents.

"And there were more people outside the pub than in it," said Bowes. "It was fantastic."

Three years later it was quiet on the opening day of the tournament, played under a blanket of gray clouds. The village was so nerve-wracking that it seemed as if you could have used the yellow defibrillator shell on the wall next to the Ship Inn to breathe new life into it.

The Black Bull is closed, as it has since mid-March, the beginning of the pandemic. The only reason Bowers and his wife sat at the bar, he said, was because they interviewed a new chef to run the kitchen as soon as they open again. But then there is hardly anyone to serve this week.

Like the rescheduled PGA Tour events in the United States, the British Masters are held without fans, so there is no overflow in the local streets or businesses

The seismic waves crashing in 2017 from Close House moved the nearby Gosforth Park racecourse, where many of the players mingled with the locals during a night of thoroughbred racing. They stretched all the way to the bustling bars and eateries on the Gateshead Quayside along the River Tyne, where Westwood drew a crowd as he hit balls on a floating island.

Many of those same bars are now closed, or are working with fewer hours and sheets of paper on which customers must provide their email addresses or phone numbers, or both, in case they are needed later for contact tracking.

A short distance from the road Black Bull, Fox & Hounds was open for lunch on Wednesday. It was nearly empty around noon when three men paused for work when the administrators of Close House entered, ordered pints at the bar, and withdrew from a table. There, they spent the next half hour watching live coverage of the first round of the tournament on a mobile phone.

They had been on the track since 4:30 am, they explained, to polish it for the first round, and would return later in the day to prepare for the second day of Thursday. At lunchtime, the scoreboard had reflected the range of the European tour, with players from six countries occupying the first eight places after the first round.

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The nearby airport still operates flights from home countries of at least two of the early leaders, Italian Renato Paratore and Portuguese Pedro Figueiredo. But on the eve of the tournament, the airport had so few travelers in the terminal that a golf club could have been waved for an hour without worrying about hitting a soul.

Andrew Glover, the manager of the DoubleTree by Hilton, headquarters of the limited-access tour this week, stared out the window and noted that the airport parking lot, which was virtually empty three weeks ago, started to fill again.

The same goes for his hotel, which only suffered a few grim nights a few weeks ago when only three of its 193 rooms were occupied. In 2017, Glover said, the hotel was a hive of activity during the tournament week as spectators mingled with tournament officials. This week, it forms the outer edge of the tour's bubble.

After apologizing for not being able to accommodate my booking this week, Glover told a story. In 2005, he said, he worked in Britain for another US-based hotel chain.

In response to an outbreak of bird flu in Asia that year, he said the hotel chain was required – according to established guidelines by the government of President George W. Bush – to keep a room filled with pandemic kits with each of his properties. Stocks consisted of thermometers, face covers, hand sanitizer and gloves.

"I remember thinking it was stupid," Glover said. & # 39; I spent all this money on things I would never need. & # 39; He paused. "If I had all that equipment three months ago, it would have been very helpful."

But what's over is a thing of the past. It made no sense for Glover to dwell in 2005 or even 2017 when the European tour came to town and Newcastle was bursting at the seams with people and pride.

Three years ago, Bowes said in the Black Bull: The tournament "definitely put Wylam on the map." The return this week has given tired companies a glimmer of hope that not everything has been irretrievably lost.

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