With all 50 states now open for golf, one might assume the entire world is hitting the links again too, right? Wrong! Globally, golf is returning, but select nations are still waiting for the green light. Canada has different regulations for each of its provinces; Victoria, Australia reopened outdoor activity this week, and India remains shuttered until next week.
Then there are the four proud nations that comprise the United Kingdom. As of this week, golf has reopened in England, while Wales resumes May 18. But Northern Ireland and Scotland remain dark, and so the U.K. is not entirely “united” in its golf at the moment, continuing its divided history.
At its apex, the British Empire was perhaps the most powerful the world has ever seen. By 1913, it held sway over 412 million people which was 23% of the world population. But after the world wars, the expansion mostly ended. While the transfer of Hong Kong to China in 1997 technically marked the end of the British Empire, its territories and colonies had been seceding and declaring independence for decades. England has also squabbled with its two close counterparts, Northern Ireland and Scotland, for as long as anyone can remember.
At the turn of the century, the Good Friday Agreement marked the end of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, but did little to fully satisfy both republicans and loyalists. In 2014, Scotland held a “referendum” (public election) on Scottish independence, with 55% of voters rejecting the proposal and opting to remain with the U.K. Two years later the entire U.K. took the famous “Brexit” vote that rocked the world, and all four countries are now dealing with the aftermath of life outside the European Union, which officially began this past January.
Just weeks after Brexit became official, Sinn Féin, the longtime nationalist party in Ireland, took as many seats in parliament as longtime establishment parties Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. The new decade has marked a new beginning in Ireland. COVID-19 added to the ambiguity because of the lack of an “all island” approach (golf in the Republic of Ireland will reopen on May 18, but not in Northern Ireland). It’s possible that Northern Ireland and Scotland will revisit independence referendums later this decade. Current polls suggest both nations are heading that way.
Meanwhile, golf in England plays on while Northern Ireland and Scotland remain at home. Like the U.S., England will keep clubhouses closed, tee-times booked in advance, bunker rakes removed, and flagsticks planted in cups. However, until the lockdown is universally lifted, there will also be confusion and financial woes for the border courses and clubs, with many golfers flowing in from both sides.
The U.K.’s four countries could be tracking toward a separate future, but maybe – maybe -- golf could be a force that helps bring people together. Just a few years ago, no one could have imagined an Open Championship being held on Irish soil, but last summer the tournament returned to Royal Portrush, in County Antrim, for the first time in 68 years, and it served as a shining example of how sports can unite. Now, any sort of competition will be welcome. But first the virus needs to be stopped, then the U.K. can return to its other complicated matters. With any luck, maybe its leaders will meet on the tee.
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