Maintain handicap to make it big in pro circles

Friday January 26 2018

Tourism Cabinet Secretary Najib Balala tees off from Kenyatta Conventional Centre Helipad during the launch of Kenya Open Golf tournament on January 24, 2018. The tournament will be held in March. PHOTO | CHRIS OMOLLO |

Tourism Cabinet Secretary Najib Balala tees off from Kenyatta Conventional Centre Helipad during the launch of Kenya Open Golf tournament on January 24, 2018. The tournament will be held in March. PHOTO | CHRIS OMOLLO |  NATION MMEDIA GROUP

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The “first tee” for this year’s Barclays Kenya Open was not on a golf course as is usually the case.

The constituents of half a dozen fourballs stood on the rooftop of the Kenyatta International Convention Centre (KICC), some swishing their drivers, waiting to tee off.

The golfers were dressed in much the same way Old Tom Morris dressed when he won at The Open in 1867, a suit complete with a tie. Not the kind of attire you find on the golf course today. The ladies were impeccably dressed complete with beautiful high heeled shoes.

Some of the golfers looked confident with easy movement of their shoulders, while others looked like they had acute anxiety. This is usually caused by the fact that they have no idea what is going to happen when their turn comes to tee off.

The starter for the event was the beautiful Kobi Kihara. She called out the golfer;

“On the tee, Cabinet Secretary Najib Balala!”

Phera Jai swiftly set up CS Balala’s ball on a peg and then there was death-like silence as he prepared to tee off. He had a rigid waggle and then, rather smoothly, he struck the ball towards the monument of Mzee Jomo Kenyatta down below. Luckily, the ball was one of the very lightweight, plastic practice golf balls which are safe to use indoors. There was no danger of cracked windscreens down below.

With that, the Barclays Kenya Open was launched. This year, with a purse at €500,000 (about Sh 63.6 million), the Barclays Kenya Open is the richest European Challenge Tour event. This coupled with the fact that it is the first event on the calendar, Barclays Kenya Open is sure to attract some of the best talent on the Challenge Tour.

Whereas we have a lot of talented professional golfers in Kenya, the foreign golfers always eat their lunch in Kenya. In its 50th year, the Barclays Kenya Open is yet to have a Kenyan winner.

Last year, the European Challenge Tour invited the Kenyan professional golfers to a training session with one of the coaches.

The session was their first attempt to try and help our local lads to compete at the same level with their South African, European and American counterparts.

We may have to wait a while longer if the kind of scores that we saw at the recent Professional Golfers of Kenya (PGK) qualifier events will be what they bring to the table.

Traditionally, the Kenya Golf Union chooses six amateur golfers to play in the Barclays Kenya Open. One of the criteria the Union usually sets for the amateur golfers is that they should be scratch golfers (play off handicap 0).

I wonder if all of our professional golfers, especially those that participate in the Barclays Kenya Open, are still able to play off scratch. How else would the professional golfers be able to measure their playing abilities other than maintaining a playing handicap at their home clubs?

A few may think that this is an inconceivable suggestion but I was pleasantly surprised to find that seven Kenyan professionals maintain Congu handicaps at their clubs.

Five of the seven are in Golf Park, the only public golf course we have in the country. The Kenyan professional with the best handicap of them all is Riz Charania of Windsor Golf Hotel and Country Club, playing off plus 5.

The other notable professional golfer with a handicap at his home club is Dismas Indiza, playing off handicap plus 1. Is it a wonder that these two Kenyan professional golfers made the cut at last year’s Barclays Kenya Open?

Most of our professional golfer’s careers have stagnated and it will take a shift in their planning to change their fortunes. For most of the year, they survive off wagers with once-a-week amateur golfers and rarely get exposed to top flight tournaments. Come the Barclays Kenya Open, they are so ill-prepared to challenge their well-tuned European counterparts.

In as much as we enjoy the quality of the game displayed by the European Challenge Tour players, they will not do as much as home-grown talent to inspire our youth to take up the sport.

In the same way Tiger Woods inspired many to start playing golf, a Kenyan professional golfer winning the Claret Jug or wearing the green jacket at Augusta would be the best boost for the game in Kenya. This may never happen in my life time if we don’t change the current pattern. The first step for them will be to monitor their playing ability by maintaining a handicap.

Around the world there are millions of golfers who play this, the greatest game of all.

Golf brings people from different walks of life and has opened doors to countless friendships in every corner of the world where this game is played. Even as politicians try to poison peoples minds in the country, sports will be the antidote that will bring us all together.