What began as event one of a hopeful three-tournament stretch in South Africa ended in a Covid-induced panic as players flocked for the exits from the Joburg Open.
Niall Kearney was amongst those heralding a new dawn for European golf as the DP World Tour officially teed off last Thursday, only for a new variant of Covid to rear its ugly head overnight in South Africa.
The UK Government swiftly announced a travel ban on flights arriving from the region and the reintroduction of hotel quarantine, and with EU countries likely to follow suit, Kearney and co woke up on Friday morning with a choice – play out the tournament and take your chances, or hop on the first flight out of there.
“We went out on the course on Friday morning having woken up to the news and it was a case of having to fend for yourself,” Kearney says.
“Nobody knew how serious the variant was going to be and with the possibilities of travel bans into the EU and hotel quarantine, a few of us decided that the best course of action was to get out of there.”
With news outlets reporting that the new variant was more lethal than any that came before it, and the Tour determined to see out its opening event, it was left up to players to decide their own fate.
Cue a mass exodus from the tournament, Kearney joined by 15 or so players confirming their withdrawal in search of a flight out of Joburg on Friday. Little did he realise just how difficult a task that would be.
“It was a very difficult situation to be in,” Kearney admits. “Everyone was panicking. It was chaos.
“You’d go to book a flight and it would be gone straight away. Go to book another one, gone too. There was massive demand,” Kearney adds, who’s in the process of completing 10-days of self-isolation in Dublin.
“Coming out of Joburg we had a target on our back. The only flight we could get was Ethiopian through Addis Ababa. We had to wait there for a few hours, a shocking airport by the way, nothing in it. And from there we flew to Stockholm, another few hours wait. It took us about thirty hours all-up to get home.”
As it turned out, the tournament, first reduced to 54-holes due to the evolving Covid situation, was then cut to 36 due to weather with South Africa’s Thriston Lawrence not just crowned the champion, but also benefitting from the full first prize pay-out and the points that go with it.
Three players, Lawrence, Ashley Chesters and Zander Lombard also booked their place in the 150th Open at St. Andrews, while the likes of Kearney, who had his dad Joe alongside him as caddie, spent about €3,500 on flights alone in a week that never was.
Irish Golfer spoke to a number of players since the completion of play who felt the decision should’ve been taken out of their hands by Tour organisers with regards to staying or going. One player, who wished to remain anonymous, told us: “The tournament was the last thing on people’s minds.
“The Tour should’ve called the tournament on day one based on the news that was happening around the world, organised a couple of charters and got everyone out of there. As it turned out, some guys who stayed received a great pay-out, full points… it seems a bit lopsided. The Tour should’ve prioritised getting players home over finishing a tournament.”
As for Kearney, he’s just glad to be home in Dublin while many players who stayed behind to see out the tournament remain stranded in South Africa. The Tour’s charter flight on the Sunday to Dubai was subsequently cancelled so although Kearney arrived home empty handed, at least he got home.
“Sitting here now, it was definitely the right call that we made because there’s still guys stuck down there,” Kearney says.
“It was lots of air miles, lots of time spent in the air, a couple of days spent on the ground and nothing really to show for it.”
It’s a disappointing end to what’s been an otherwise brilliant year for Kearney and although he’s likely to miss out on the first two starts of 2022 in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, he’s raring to go in his bid to build on a superbly successful 2021.
“There’ll be more opportunities so still plenty to look forward to next year and lots to work towards. It’s exciting.”