SANDWICH, England (AP) — Any other week, Nick Poppleton would be working as a supermarket delivery driver to supplement his modest income as a player on the third tier of European golf.
Maybe even fitting windows with a good friend, just for a bit of extra cash.
Not this week.
Instead, the 27-year-old Englishman is walking the rolling fairways of Royal St. George’s in his first appearance at the British Open. Indeed he already has been lucky enough to play his first practice round in Sandwich in the company of Phil Mickelson and Bryson DeChambeau.
“I wasn’t really interested in their golf game or how they were playing, because it was all a bit too much for me,” said Poppleton, taking a break from the practice green to talk about his first time on golf’s biggest stage. “It was just nice to watch them go about their business.”
Indeed, for Poppleton, it’s just nice to be on a golf course.
The pandemic didn’t just result in his nascent golf career, and therefore his earning potential, grinding to a halt in 2020. It also gave him some perspective.
His partner, Amber, is a radiographer at a children’s hospital. As the coronavirus raged through Britain in April 2020, she offered to work in one of the hastily constructed emergency hospitals — called the “Nightingales” — set up for COVID-19 patients.
Her working hours were long. The stress was huge. Golf, suddenly, took a back seat for Poppleton.
“My role wasn’t a golfer,” he said, “it became a support for her. That’s what it had to be.
“I was there if she needed someone to talk to, to get anything off her chest. It’s not a great job already — one day you are dealing with a kid who is in remission or having a cancer scan, the next you are dealing with someone who is fighting for their life.”
It’s why Poppleton is giving short shrift to any player at this week’s British Open grumbling about operating under strict COVID-19 restrictions implemented by the R&A.
“You hear players complaining about the bubble malarkey,” he said, “but it’s a piece of cake in comparison.”
In the darkest days of the pandemic, Poppleton resorted to going to fields near his home in Sheffield, England, to hit some golf balls. The EuroPro Tour — a level below the Challenge Tour, which is the secondary tier to the European Tour — shut down for 2020 but did at least manage to put on some localized events Poppleton refers to as “mini tours.”
He played them but also had to take on work as a delivery driver, which he still does mostly on Saturdays.
“I’m lucky,” he said, “I’ve got this week off.”
That’s because he won a local qualifying event at West Lancashire by three shots to get to Royal St. George’s and the biggest week of his golfing life. He said there are “probably about five people” watching an average round on the EuroPro Tour — at this British Open, there will be about 32,000 per day, marking the biggest crowds since golf returned after the coronavirus outbreak.
He got a feel for what it will be like by going round Monday with Mickelson and DeChambeau, by far the biggest names he has ever played alongside. They knew who he was, and how he got to the British Open, when they introduced themselves on the first tee. That impressed Poppleton.
“They were just on it straightaway. Professional. Proper dialed in,” he recalled.
“I knew what I was getting into by playing with Bryson. It’s going to be forwards and it’s going to go far. But it’s very impressive.”
Even if Poppleton finishes last of the 156 entrants, he will earn $5,350, which is almost as much as he has made on tour this year.
He’ll be playing in the final group in the first round on Thursday and taking a relaxed approach, born out of his experiences during the pandemic.
“It’s going to be a bit different, but you’re still hitting a ball around a field into some long rough and finding it,” Poppleton said. “It’s the same gig, just the course is a lot harder.”
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