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Tour golf comes of age in Kenya as local pros demand fairness in qualifying for Savannah Classic

GOLF By Mike The Pro Kibunja | March 1st 2021
Jordan Spieth, left, watches Ryan Palmer tee off the first hole during practice for the Charles Schwab Challenge golf tournament at the Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas, Tuesday, June 9, 2020. The Challenge is the first PGA tour event since the COVID-19 pandemic began. (AP)

With three European Tour Championships slotted for this year, Kenya has surely come of age in holding International PGA Tour championships.

This March sees two mens’ Championships played back-to-back at the Karen Course. The Magical Kenya Open kicks off on 18th March 2021 and shall be followed by the new Kenya Savannah Classic the following week.

Then in October, the ladies take the field at the Ladies European Tour, LET, Championship at Vipingo, where we hope some of our best East African lady golfers like Naomi Wafula, Bhavi Shah, Tanzania’s Angel Eaton and Uganda’s Flavia Namakula shall compete.

It’s golf Nirvana, Kenyans never had it so good; the opportunity to watch European Tour golf stars right here at home. Previously, to watch such top-level players, Kenyans would go to the UAE for the Dubai Classic, 

Upcoming Tour golfers also displayed some superior golf at the Kenya Open during when it was a Challenge Tour event.

Indeed, quite a number of the high-flying golfers on the US PGA and European Tours cut their winning teeth at the Kenya Open. 

The list of former Kenya Open winners and participants is quite impressive. The most recent winners who have since joined the European Tour are Aaron Rai, Guido Migliozzi, Lorenzo Gagli , Edoardo Molinari and Sebastian Soderberg from the Black Mountain Course in Hua Hin, Thailand, the toughest course I have ever played.

Pro Mathew Omondi practices at his home course, Vet Labs Sports Club in Nairobi, Feb 27, 2021. [Mose Sammy, Standard]

The likes of Ian Woosnam, Seve Ballesteros and Trevor Immelman who would go on to win The Masters. Another is Vijay Singh who never won the Kenya Open but beat Tiger Woods for the 2000 green jacket.

Thus, the Kenya Open is a proven ground for future Champions. This is a bit puzzling given that the two Kenya Open courses, Muthaiga and Karen are relatively short by Tour Standards. Their effective length is even shorter by some seven per cent due to the altitude of Nairobi some six thousand feet above sea level.

The decision to hold the Savannah Classic, after Oman Open bailed out, was met with a lot of excitement by Kenyan golfers and fans. However, there were some reservations about holding it at the same Karen course as the previous week’s Kenya Open. A better alternative could have been Muthaiga six months later.

Back to back Championships may not be a bad decision. For one, it allows the players and organizers to get used to the bubble concept that has been adopted to guard against contracting or spreading Covid-19.

The other advantage is that Tours like scheduling the competitions in a swing format to minimize the rigours of international travel. In the swing format, several competitions are held in the same area over a short time, consecutively.

For example, the recently completed Gulf swing saw four Championships held in two Emirates in December and January. Similarly, after the Kenya Competitions, there will be a Mediterranean swing that will feature two competitions in Spain, one in France and one in Portugal.

This may be the future of the Safari Tour, growing to incorporate a Safari Swing. European Tour Championships would ideally be held in Nairobi, Mombasa, Kampala, Entebbe and Kilimanjaro.

That would be in the future. Right now, we need to resolve a problem that is likely to jeopardize the participation of the Kenya and Africa Pros at the Kenya Savannah Classic if not resolved in time.

The issue is that since it is a new competition, there has been no time to design a method of qualification, unlike the Kenya Open that used the Safari Tour, over several months. Each PGA Tour event has a well-defined qualification system.

The contentious word is that the Kenya Open Golf limited wants to use the list of the same qualifiers from the Safari Tour. This would be wrong. For starters, the golfers are questioning why KOGL is getting involved in the Kenya Savannah Classic; it is not the Kenya Open.

This is complicated by the fact that it is not yet clear who the sponsors and organizers of the Savannah Classic are, and the local Pros have no idea whom to address on the issue.

They pray that the new event is not under the KGU-controlled KOGL.

Until there is clarity, one would posit that under the current circumstances, KOGL may be best placed to manage the Savannah Classic. After all, they will just have run the Kenya Open the previous week at the same venue. But they need to get real and benchmark with other Tour events and make objective decisions. 

Qualification of local players to the Kenya Open is always a contentious issue. There was a time the list was subjective and was prepared at the bar in one of our local golf clubs, selfishly favouring their Club Pros. In the current case of the inaugural Kenya Savannah Classic, the lazy but unfair solution is to adopt the old list from the Kenya Open qualifiers. I would equate that with treating Malaria with Meningitis medicine.

It would be making the erroneous assumption that the players' abilities remain constant over time, which is not true as demonstrated by the leaderboard at Safari Tour that drastically changed with each event.

Consider what would have happened if the Safari Tour had been extended another two weeks to derive a list of qualifiers for the Savannah Classic. 

A new qualifiers list would emerge, where some previous Kenya Open qualifiers would drop off while some previous non-qualifiers would get in. Such is the variance expected of Tour Golf. 

We still have some three weeks before the Kenya Open, enough time to arrange for qualifying. The best solution is the same one this golf analyst proposed in 2018: A Monday qualifier competition as happens on other tour championships.

But this time, hold the one-day 36-hole qualifier for the Kenya Savannah Classic on the Monday of the week before the Kenya Open week. Start at 7am and play the 36 holes non-stop. 

This allows time for a playoff in case of ties. Problem solved! Nobody needs to get antagonised or go to court. The tough Vetlab course awaits these Pros. Instruct the Greenskeeper to start toughening the course today, not tomorrow.

The 2018 Monday qualifier was very effective since some of the other European Tour golfers who had not qualified and others who had arrived as alternates hoping to replace a qualifier who did not arrive were able to compete for the three available slots.

Indeed, the eventual winner at this qualifier held at the tough Vetlab course, Frenchman Victor Riu, proved himself a few days later by racking up the eighth position at the Kenya Open, proving that Monday qualifying works.

Niclas Johansson from Sweden and Pedro Figueiredo from Portugal also qualified after a dramatic playoff. Unfortunately, there was no Monday qualifying in 2019, which robbed that edition of some spice.

I see some Pros who have not qualified for the Kenya Open going, Aha! and asking, shall we have the regular Monday qualifying at the two events? Over to you, KOGL and European Tour. [email protected] , @pigamingi1


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