A Bright Future for the Magical Kenya Open

We sat in the grandstand behind the 18th green at the Karen Country Club, and watched a few groups finish off their rounds. The seats beside us were empty, and it was unusually quiet around the clubhouse. Ryder Cup winning captain, Thomas Bjørn, then ambled up the fairway, triggering a flurry of activity as people shuffled around the green, and a TV camera was plonked behind a bunker. But it was still a modest crowd, for such a giant in the game. As he sunk his putt, I glanced at the group behind him in the distance, and realised where everyone was.

A huge swarm of people emerged from the trees, and engulfed the rough by the 18th tee. It was like a scene from The Walking Dead – a horde of zombies moving en masse in the shimmering heat. They were following the best placed Kenyan golfer in the field, Thika Sports Club’s Simon Ngige. To see the fans support one of their own so passionately was fantastic, especially with a fifteen-time European Tour winner a few hundred yards up the fairway.

Ngige didn’t let them down. His second shot on the 18th landed just short of the fringe, leaving him with a tricky chip to the pin at the back of an undulating green. As the crowd settled in the stands, he struck it perfectly and watched his ball bounce and roll into the cup. Pandemonium followed, and he shook his head in disbelief. It was undoubtedly the loudest cheer of the tournament, and one of the marshals was so ecstatic that he jumped the fence and threw his arms round Ngige. The clip has been shared widely on social media, and he is now jokingly nicknamed ‘the impartial marshal’.

That last chip for birdie earned Ngige a tournament score of five under, and a cool Sh1.2 million. There were plenty of other magical moments on the 18th hole, too. Tournament winner, Guido Migliozzi, was calmness personified with his second shot, which he almost holed for an eagle, and which was enough to finish just one shot above the three second place finishers at fifteen under. He ended up taking home Sh20.5 million – a serious amount of money for a 22-year old. For anybody, for that matter.

The increase in prize money is a consequence of the Kenya Open’s new European Tour status, which promises to have a big impact on Kenyan golf. It has already led to the introduction of the Safari Tour series, aimed at preparing local professionals for the Open.

It will also draw in some of the world’s top players. Over the fifty years since the Kenya Open’s inception in 1967, the tournament has been graced by some world class golfers early on in their careers: the likes of Seve Ballesteros, Vijay Singh, Ian Woosnam and Trevor Immelman. It has long been considered to be a springboard to success for up-and-coming pros, but as part of the European Tour it should now attract the game’s elite players.

Thomas Bjørn and Ho-sung Choi – with his absolutely absurd swing – were the standout visitors in last week’s field, and who knows who Kenya’s professionals will be playing alongside next year? This year’s Open coincided with one of the PGA Tour’s signature events, the Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass in Florida, but that might not be the case in 2020.

I last went to the Kenya Open as a teenager over 10 years ago, and I remember my excitement when the fairly unknown South African player Titch Moore handed me the ball he’d played with. I can only imagine my reaction if that had been Rory McIlroy, or Sergio Garcia. But these are players that Kenya’s young golfers now have the chance to watch in the flesh and meet – and that bodes well for the future of the sport in this country.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation