Has Kenyan golf finally come of age?

Last weekend was brightened up by a golf tournament sponsored by Magical Kenya, the official destination website of Kenya Tourist Board. The tournament is part of the prestigious European tour. It was the first time such a tournament was held in Kenya and broadcasted live on Supersport and other channels. 

The European tour was established in 1972. It is the most colourful golf event held in Kenya so far. Among the key players who competed in the tournament were Justin Hardin and Shubanker Sharmar. The tournament, in addition to attracting elite players, now has higher prize money courtesy of sponsors, including the State. 

The venue of the tournament was Karen Golf Club established in 1937. It was named after Karen Blixen whose pen name was Isak Dinesen.  She was known to have been a friend of WWI German General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck.

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Do not ask me for more…
Does holding this tournament in Kenya mean golf has finally come of age in the country?

I think not. We are yet to get our Tiger Woods or Dustin Johnsons. We are yet to give South Africa a serious challenge in this game that still echoes elitism. Our local golfers’ scores in the tournaments mean there is room for improvement. Only two Kenyan professional golfers - Simon Ngigi and Justus Madoya got the cut to the third and fourth rounds and are thus assured of some pay.

Psychological preparation

It is not that we do not have good golfers. It might be about exposure and psychological preparation. And to say in whispers, age. Our golfers on average are older. One of the biggest catchment areas for young golfers happens to be universities and colleges. Yet, it is unlikely that any professional golfer has ever come from the University of Nairobi’s Upper Kabete campus which shares a fence with Vetlab Golf Club which was established in 1923.

Without blowing my own trumpet, I learned to play golf at Kentucky State University where it was taught as an undergraduate unit.

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We hope with the new curriculum, such games will be taught all the way from primary school to university. Many schools have enough land to build small golf courses. The greatest beneficiary of this tournament is tourism. The tournament will showcase Kenya as a golf destination, beyond the Big Five and safari. We need more of such tournaments in every golf club streamed live to the world.

Mr Muchau Githiaka, former Kenya Golf Union chair suggest that our junior golfers play at the level of this tournament.

He says a golf academy is long overdue. More tournaments like this would uplift the standard of golf and improve the pockets of golfers, he added.

Apart from the shortage of funds and young talent, there is also lack of enough championship golf courses. Luckily, we can build new ones. This is one area where counties with lots of lands could rebrand themselves.

Imagine a championship course on the shores of Lake Turkana.

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Why not new courses overlooking Mt Kilimanjaro or Mt Kenya? What of one hugging the Indian Ocean or in the middle of a tea plantation?

Endless summers

Why should countries where winters close to golf courses do better than us in golf tournaments with our endless summers? Golf in Kenya has taken a giant step forward but it would take a Great Leap Forward if it was demystified with more people playing it. Who said a course must have 18 holes and par three, four or five?

One secret behind golf success in South Africa is its devolution to the grassroots.

I once played on a par 29 course near Knysna. Taking golf to the hustlers will tap more talents which are normally distributed. The big question is who will invest in the golf talents.

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Is it the private sector or the government? Golf is more expensive compared with say athletics. It needs lots of expensive equipment. However, investing in golf as Tiger Woods and others have shown has high returns. The 2019 Magical Kenya Open should be a watershed, making golf one of the tourist attractions, the source of income for our talented youngsters and rebranding of our country as the land of games beyond athletics.

After upgrading the country to middle-income status through the Big Four or Vision 2030, we need new status symbols like golf. Golf will nudge our youngsters to aspire for greater ideals beyond soccer and the English Premier League.

Golf could be a better addiction for Kenyans, better than Kumi-Kumi or weed. 

And why can’t golfers learn from the English Premier League and the way it introduces young boys to football? To the winners of Magical Kenya Open, congrats. To others, there is always tomorrow. Maybe I will test my handicap 11 in the tournament next year...

-The writer teaches at the University of Nairobi

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University of NairobiKenya Golf UnionMagical Kenya