Golf-Australian tour battlers desperate to tee off again after COVID purgatory
By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Having had his livelihood taken away and two peak playing years wiped out by COVID-19, Australian golfer Matt Griffin is eager to rejoin the professional ranks but also anxious his game may never return to its pre-pandemic highs.
The 38-year-old Melbourne man is one of scores of Australian professionals hoping to reboot their careers even as health officials throw up a series of roadblocks.
"Last year, we all kind of thought it would be six months and we’d all be back out there. Unfortunately it's kind of just kept dragging on," Griffin told Reuters at a suburban course in Melbourne.
"It’ll end a lot of careers as well because it’ll be hard for guys to start back up and you lose that continuity."
Most of the developed world is starting to move on from lockdowns and travel curbs, allowing globe-trotting golfers to ply their trade again.
But Australia remains frozen in time by a slow vaccination roll-out. Borders are shut to non-residents and returning travellers are forced into 14-day hotel quarantine at their own expense, regardless of their vaccination status.
The curbs have been devastating for the local golf tour which is a vital proving ground for young talent, a stepping stone to richer, foreign circuits, and which props up hundreds of professionals, coaches and administrators.
Australia's top events were all cancelled last year and officials fear further cuts over the coming summer as internal travel bans continue to bite.
"It’s sort of this vicious circle of uncertainty that conspires against us in a challenging fashion," Golf Australia boss James Sutherland told Reuters.
"For players, time is money and they can’t afford those two weeks in quarantine."
NOT SO FORTUNATE
For Griffin, the pandemic struck just after hitting his stride on the Japanese tour where he finished top-30 in the money list in 2019.
From making up to A$600,000 ($440,000) in good years, his earnings plummeted due to the lack of playing opportunities.
The father-of-one made do with sponsorship income and "Jobkeeper" payments before the federal government's wage subsidy programme wound up in March.
Others have not been so fortunate.
Griffin's brother, a golf instructor, has been unable to coach for months in southern Victoria state, where courses and driving ranges were closed until recently due to social restrictions.
"You’ve got guys who have basically built their entire lives around golf that are now just doing odd jobs trying to make ends meet," said Griffin.
"I’ve got mates from the Japan tour who are working as labourers. We’re really just trying to get by until we can get our careers back."
There is light at the end of the tunnel.
The Australian government is set to relax border and quarantine controls when 80% of the adult population is fully vaccinated, likely by November.
The Asian Tour, a popular circuit for Australian professionals unable to qualify for the U.S. and European tours, is set to resume in late-November after being shut down since March 2020.
The PGA of Australia, which organises most local events, is confident of a full schedule in 2022/23 and reckons the country's established stars like Adam Scott and Jason Day will come home to give the domestic game a boost.
As in other parts of the world, the pandemic has been a boost for golf participation in Australia, where courses remain packed even after bans on contact sports and socialising indoors have been lifted.
Officials hope some of the new weekend hackers remain long-term fans who can support more professional events in coming years to help the tour recover.
"I don’t think we’ll ever make up for what’s been lost the last 18 months to two years," Australian PGA Tournaments Director Nick Dastey told Reuters.
"But we are as confident as we can be in these uncertain times."
Griffin, locked-down in Melbourne since early-August, is bruised but far from broken as he targets a A$137,500 ($101,000) event near the city in December.
"There’s always the dream. You might have had a bad six-12 months but there’s always the guy that comes out and wins a big tournament. That plays in the back of people’s minds."
($1 = 1.3611 Australian dollars)
(Reporting by Ian Ransom in Melbourne; Editing by Peter Rutherford)
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