What Kenya needs to do in order to host the European Open

Two-time Guinness World Record holder, Karsten Maas, performing his world-famous golf trick shots on the sidelines of the 50th edition of the Barclays Kenya Open at the Muthaiga Golf club: Kenya ison the way to hosting the European Open. [File/Standard]
Kenya Open Golf Championship is on track to being promoted from the European Tour’s Challenge to a full European Tour event.

That is huge news for Kenya Golf. The Kenya Open is the only survivor of the Safari circuit of the 70s and 80s. The others died along the way.

 Uganda, Zambia and Tanzania no longer hold Professional Tour events. South Africa created the very successful sunshine tour and also hosts two events on the European Tour. The Morocco Golf Open is now the European TourTrophee Hassan II Golf Championship.

 It is therefore exciting that Kenya is getting there too. With a European Tour Kenya Open, and a Sunshine Tour-sanctioned Karen Masters, the future looks bright. To get to that high level, we first need to assess where we are at and also take some lessons from history on how International Golf Tournaments are hosted.

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This year’s 50th edition of the Kenya Open was a special achievement that recorded multiple wins for Kenya OpenGolf Limited.

It was not business as usual. They introduced a number of firsts. For the first time at the Kenya Open, a Monday Qualifier, the last shot to qualifying glory, was held at Vetlabs golf club. 

The event attracted Pros from all over the world. One of the three qualifiers, Frenchman Victor Riu, finished in the either position at the Open, vindicating the idea of the Monday qualifying. Monday qualifying was an idea that yours sincerely suggested to KOGL last year, who then executed it perfectly this year.

The Kenya Open Trophy of a bronze elephant sculpture is well known. But the event missed a critical part of golfculture: a winner’s jacket. This year saw the inaugural Kenya Open Golf Winner’s jacket launched, albeit with the wrong color initially suggested, something that yours sincerely quickly helped turn around to Kenya’s sports champions Red, thanks to receptive ears at KOGL. Henceforth, as Augusta talks about their Green Jacket, we shall also talk of the Kenya Open Red Jacket.

This year, major contributors to the growth and success of the Kenya Open were also honuored in a Roll of Honor, led by Kenya Golf Union Patron, former President Mwai Kibaki. There were many more improvements and firsts this year in the organization and management of the event this year.

Uhuru chips in

The turning of Kenya Open into a European Tour event has the backing of the highest office in the land.

President Uhuru Kenyatta has not only more than doubled the Government’s contribution to the event to Sh100m for this year’s competition, but also doubled it again to Sh200m for 2019, making it the highest prize money kitty ever offered for a sports competition in Kenya.

The country shall gain priceless publicity and other immeasurable gains that shall easily pay back as the event helps the country as a golf destination. The term Golf Safari shall finally ring true.

While it all sounds good for the Kenya Open to be promoted to the main European Tour, there are some challenges ahead. One such challenge is that of Muthaiga and Karen Golf clubs being too small to handle a European Tour event.

The courses don’t have enough space for a challenging course length, golf range, spectator areas, clubhouse, press areas and other facilities areas. The Kenya Open might have to shift to a new bigger venue.

There have already been complaints about inadequate facilities for the press and from inconvenienced spectators. These two clubs must certainly have been big and spacious a hundred years ago when the sports-inclined among of the Happy Valley set started them, but times have changed.

The membership then was a few dozen white Settlers who thronged Nairobi for their Friday evening and weekend binge. Today, club membership run in the hundreds as more Kenyans have taken up golf. The various expansions to the clubs over the years have slowly eaten up the service areas.

The main factor that may force relocation of Kenya Open venue is the short length of the courses. Golf by definition, tests brutal strength, accuracy and finesse. Size matters: the power and swing to drive the ball 300-plus yards is a major determinant in defining champions.

 A former Kenya Open winner described the Muthaura course as a, “nice drive, pitch and putt course”. Meaning that the course is simply not long enough. He teed off with a 3-wood on some par 4’s and was still left with a mid-iron for second shot.

Flat bellies

This year, the Muthaura course was set up to a length of 7184 yards. Karen was 6951 in 2016. Compare that to the J’burg Open and the BMW South African Open, both set at 7595 yards this year.  Augusta is at 7,435, of which they are aware is short and are busy buying adjoining properties in order to extend holes. Considering the ongoing increases in driving distance from the flat bellies who are driving the ball a mil, these two courses are obsolete.

The other distance factor that works against Nairobi courses is the high altitude, being 5,890 feet above sea level. The rule of thumb is to add 10 percent of extra distance for every 5,000-foot increase in altitude. Subtracting 10 percent for comparison, means that the comparative distances are 6,466 and 6256 yards: too short. No disrespect, but these are shorter than some tour courses on the US women’s LPGA Tour, whose yardage is between 6,200 and 6,600 yards.

One could argue that Championship courses need not be long, but can be tricked up and Tiger proofed to give them more teeth, but facts and experience say otherwise.

These golf gods made mincemeat of the 2013 US Open hosted by Merion, a 6,996 yards course. This was followed by the debacle last year at Royal Birkdale, a 7156 yards course, which they bombed and gouged to submission, sometimes teeing off on Par 4s with irons, leading to a fake breaking of Johnnie Miller’s 1973 majors record of 63 set at Oakmont.

A truly deserving and challenging Tour Championship tour course these days needs to be in the 7600 yards zip code, preferably towards 7800 yards. Erin Hills, site of last year’s US Open at 1000-metre altitude, was set to 7741 yards. Their setting for the 2011 US Amateur, it was 7760 yards. Note: amateur

One solution for the Kenya Open is to increase the length of the courses. But to where? Like most city courses, the back tees are already maxed out at the tips.

Stadium design

Course length aside, the other factor is the increase in popularity of golf, both as a sport and a spectator event, and hence the demanding for a bigger venue. To be precise, a modern TPC with a stadium design.

A stadium golf course is one that is designed with spectators in mind. It requires building mounding and hillsides that are well-grassed, to create vantage viewing points along the fairways, around greens and tees thus creating an “amphitheater effect", for spectators, who can then sit and watch the spectacle comfortable, compared to the endless standing and pain that our spectators have to bear at our two venues.  Think of picnicking and soaking the sun during a cricket match.

Spectator and press comfort

Such grassed earthen mounds are more effective and cheaper to build than erecting temporary spectator stands every year around the greens and tees. The ultimate stadium course design is of course the famous par 3 short 17thhole with an island green at Sawgrass.

Here hundreds of spectators have a first row seats and get to view the entire hole from tee, over water all the way to the green.

Shifting from Muthaura Golf Club, which is also the home of Kenya Golf Union, Kenya Open Golf Limited and Junior Golf Foundation, will be disruptive and inconvenient. However, as any student of management is taught, disruptions provide opportunities for creating something new unlike incremental improvements, which have a natural upper limit.

The limited services and building areas are another issue. When these golf mega stars arrive, they bring with them a pose of family members, physiologist, psychologist’s physical trainers and swing trainers, a huge group reminiscent of TP OK Jazz landing at JKIA. This elitist team of experts demands and expects royal treatment, including special lounges with superior amenities as well as exclusive, uncrowded viewing areas.

Parking for the golfers and their pose, press, officials and dignitaries is limited. Already, there have been complaints about the limited press areas at Muthaura and Karen. The European Tour is televised live. We expect hundreds of accredited members of press, writers, TV camera crews and studios, who need to be provided with media facilities during a European tour event. There will be overhead blimps and cranes for TV cameras, and electronic scoreboards all over the course.

Truck parking areas shall be needed for golf equipment manufacturer’s Tour equipment trucks. These are mobile workshops loaded with equipment for checking the golfers’ clubs for damage, changes in lofts and specs, changing clubheads and shafts, and for repairing the same. Obviously these trucks have to be parked near the range.

Unlike the present situation where weather conditions are probably judged by eye and ears, due to safety concerns, the Tour requires constant monitoring of the weather especially if lightening is a possibility, as happened this year. Weather radar services will need to be provided on site. Thus the high-flying weather balloon seen floating above the course and the alert weathermen crunching the data.

The merchandise tent is a big attraction for all golfers and non-golfers, and a must-visit. This is a chance for golfers to view, touch and buy the latest golf clubs and equipment and accessories. Everything is available: from full golf sets, irons, woods, drivers, putters, caps, modern cleat less shoes, and the latest golf balls.

The gear

 I would advise golfers to look out for accessories and gadgets that aid their game: anti-UV sunglasses, scorecard holders, warm up donuts, divot tools, arms sleeves, replacement shoe cleats, ball line markers, clutch pencils, putting mats and cups, rangefinders and putting alignment mirrors and more are available.

It’s a merchandise show any golfer should not miss. Junior golf sets are a hot seller, so have your wallet ready if you plan on taking Junior and Sweetie along. For the fashionable non-golfer who knows how to fit the part, there is golf apparel that can be worn off the course: designer polo shirts, sleeveless tops for ladies, sports miniskirts, visors, caps and belts.

The Kenya Open has slowly grown into a popular family outing for the trendy and fashionistas:  the place to be and to dress up for that weekend. It’s up there with the annual Concours d’elegance, Blankets and Wines, and the Kenya Derby at Ngong Racecourse. Even the celebs and socialites turn up dressed to the nines, if not to watch, to be watched.

Like any other outdoor even, keeping the huge number of spectators fed and hydrated is a challenge. Concession stands for food and drink vendors shall be required at various points on the course. The bites available at such events, samosas, mushkakis, tandoori chicken and nyama make attending the event worth it.

Ablution facilities are a must. It’s a long walk from one end of the course to the clubhouse. While building ablution blocks all over the course may be overkill at this juncture, some secluded areas where gender-separated portable toilets are located are required. Of course with a tank of water, and soap for handwash.

There is something for the no-golfing kids too. Play areas for kids will be required to make this a truly family event. Similarly, mini golf competitions, short game competitions, and demonstration areas and stands for stake holders like Junior Golf Foundation shall all require space.

All these facilities will require more space than Muthaura and Karen currently have.  We are planning a course for the future, not trying to force the current ones to serve a need they obviously cannot accommodate. It’s a whole new ball game.

So what solution am I suggesting? In a previous article, I advocated the building of a modern golf training school. Why not do it now, together with the new course? I recall some land being reserved for a golf course at Kasarani. Google Earth shows a lot of land still available there. We need to move fast before the land grabbers move in.

There is no better time than the present to build a new modern course than now.

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Kenya OpenEuropean OpenUhuru KenyattaMuthaiga Golf Club