The low hum of commuting cars queued up both ways on the nearby A446 and the occasional squawk of ducks was the audible backdrop instead of cheering crowds to Robert MacIntyre’s return to action in the UK.
The European Tour had hoped the Betfred British Masters at the Belfry could be a test event for the return of fans to the fairways. They’d worked on a travel plan allowing only car drivers (in twos at most) to attend in much reduced capacities.
But with so many foreign players and caddies present, the government wanted an abundance of caution, in that ubiquitous phrase of the lockdown. Maybe the Scottish Open in July will see some fans return.
A gentle easing in at the 10th
MacIntyre, with former World No 1 Martin Kaymer and rising Danish star Rasmus Hojgaard as partners, started at the short par four 10th. There sits the prominent plaque designating this was where Severiano Ballesteros had first driven the green 311 yards away in 1978.
Changed days. The feat seemed outrageous then, but it’s bang average now. Only no player really wants to start a round with double Ryder Cup qualifying points on the line attempting to drive over water to a tight green at a short par four, so no-one was taking it on.
MacIntyre parred there, then hit to four feet at the 11th and holed it for birdie. He looked maybe a little trimmer again after his US run which saw him perform so well at the Masters and Matchplay, he had three weeks off at home and some of it appears to have been on the Peloton bike, most 21st century golfers’ fitness friend.
Martin Kaymer 💬
Robert MacIntyre 💬
Bernd Wiesberger 💬
Renato Paratore 💬
— The European Tour (@EuropeanTour) May 11, 2021
But the rustiness started to show fairly quickly after that. There were a couple of missed chances, a messy six at the long 15th (his sixth) which included a leftward drive into the trees, a free drop, a clatter among the branches and to one observer “five poor shots in a six”.
Swing coach David Burns was watching from a discreet distance, trying to keep an eye on MacIntyre’s fellow Scot Calum Hill, among the early leaders in the group behind. The Kingsfield coach tutors them both, and it was the first time he’d been able to see both of his star clients in action at the same event.
A pearler at the 18th doesn’t quite come off
At 18, where a new back tee had Kaymer’s jovial Scottish caddie Craig Connolly growling, MacIntyre groaned loudly as his second shot went under the tree where Team Europe celebrated so wildly at the Ryder Cups of yore.
It was a groan of disappointment rather than despair. He thought he’d a hit a pearler, but mis-judged the wind and it went long. A beautifully judged chip to a foot and a half saved par.
One the back nine, it was pars all over and one birdie at the fourth. A birdie putt from the front edge after being bunkered off the tee burned the hole edge, but it was a one-under 71 – still good enough for a top 20.
“I really didn’t play great,” he admitted. “I putted great, didn’t drive it great, felt like there were a few slack irons.
“The score is still there to get, delighted to walk off there one under par.”
‘I thought it was quite easy’
One aspect of MacIntyre’s US sojourn was he found he couldn’t stop the ball on the firm greens there. That has resulted in a new set of irons, which have a better “dispersion of distance”, he said. There’s a lot of science that goes into this unseen.
“I thought it was quite easy, I just didn’t take advantage of the par fives early on,” he said. “I had a mishit with a six-iron into one. Really, you shouldn’t be making par on a par five hitting a six-iron in there.
“The shot on 18 we thought the wind had switched into us slightly. I just said this to Mike (Thomson, his caddie), I can hit this a bit harder, I can trap it.
“I hit it perfect, just misjudged the wind slightly. It was a great shot, I just was left with a horrible chip.”
The purpose of this week’s return, however, is to be ready for next week’s PGA at Kiawah Island.
“A tough track is what I’m here for,” he said. “You hit a bad shot you get punished, hit a good shot you get rewarded.
“I’m a bit ring rusty but the game’s not too bad, there’s a couple of things to sharpen up, there’s a couple of thing visually to see better, but on the way.”