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Golf Park Pro Erick Ooko in action during the fourth leg of the 2020-21 Safari Tour at Sigona. Photo/RAYMOND MAKHAYA

Golf

Safari Tour rivalry whips-up golfing enthusiasm

NAIROBI, Kenya, Oct 30 – For the last one month, Safari Tour players have savored back to back action on Kenyan greens and fairways.

Notwithstanding Covid-19 pandemic protocols which primarily excluded caddies, organizers Kenya Open Golf Limited (KOGL) made all-out- effort to kickstart an exhilarating 2020/21 Safari Tour series.

The series has thus far produced four different winners -serving up some exhilarating displays of golfing artistry.

For local and regional pros, it’s been an opportunity to fight for the US$10,000 (Sh1 million) prize money at stake per event as well as 10 European Tour slots up for grabs in what is christened ‘Road to the Kenya Open 2021’.

The sole professional golf tour in East Africa is being used as a yardstick to ascertain top 8 locals and two regional pros, who will join the rest of the world for the European Tour Magical Kenya Open 2021 which returns to the par 72 Karen Country Club for the umpteenth time next year.

When Safari Tour concept was mooted as a professional golf tour in Kenya a few years ago, there was immense interest to incorporate junior golfers of either gender as well as elite amateur golfers playing in the Kenya Amateur Golf Championship, formerly Goty.

From the onset, the essence was to also incorporate top East African pros which came to fruition effective last year.

And following an agreement with authorities in Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania, the Safari Tour has since spread it’s tentacles across the region offering pros great opportunities.

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All in all, the current expanded format has brought in its wake a raft of benefits from handing golf professionals across the region a platform to showcase their skills to Kenya Open qualification opportunities through Safari Tour.

But following cancellation of this year’s Kenya Open due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, the Safari Tour comes along with an exciting new format in the points earning system. The 2020/21 Safari Tour, the only pro golf tour in East Africa, teed off at Limuru Country Club earlier in the month, where Greg Snow swept the ground with all his opponents.

On the second week of the month, Zimbabwe man Robson Chinhoi staged a stunning penultimate day fight-back to emerge the victor at the Royal Nairobi Golf Club with a cumulative total of 9 under which flabbergasted all and sundry. Dismas Indiza who had a bad start in the first two legs was untouchable at Vet Lab, where he vanquished Chinhoi by two strokes after a penultimate round of 5 under.

KOGL General Manager, Vincent Wang’ombe, is excited about the growth of the event regionally and the level of interest generated so far. Commenting on the new Safari Tour season, Wang’ombe says: “The 2020 Magical Kenya Open was cancelled so for intents and purposes, we started a new season with qualifying scores.

We are, however, taking 10 percent of 2018-2019 scores, 20 percent of the 2019-2020 and 70 percent of 2020-2021 scores for our running points tally that will qualify pros to the Kenya Open.”

KOGL, an organization that owns Safari Tour, has been working round the clock to bolster the now famous and competitive ‘Road to Kenya Open’ series.

Wang’ombe, who oversees the operations of the KOGL secretariat besides his role as chief referee at the Safari Tour events, says: “The main difference of this year’s Tour as opposed to the past editions is the points system. This year unlike the previous years, we take into account the points from the other two seasons as well. Most of the other aspects have remained the same. The other difference is that we shall have fewer events in Uganda due to the Covid-19 pandemic. We shall also have one event in Rwanda.”

Uganda Open will be the first event outside Kenya slated for end of November. What this means is that pros and amateurs have a full month to practice as they ponder their rivalry with the neighbours.

For long-hitter Dismas Indiza, it’s not only an opportunity to bolster his points tally on the log but to also brace for his sixth Uganda Open title after his campaign came a cropper last year at the Lake Victoria Serena Golf Resort & Spa course. 

Zambian Muthiya Madalitso was the victor with his second Uganda Open professional title, where he edged Zimbabwe’s Charamba Tongoona by four shots. Indiza came fourth in the event but picked maximum Safari Tour points.

Safari Tour is already gaining traction across the region with rising interest from as far afield as West Africa. This year, the event has attracted golfers from five counties namely Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Malawi and Zimbabwe.

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“We have attracted members from several countries in Africa. We have also helped in professionalizing the standards of tournaments by ensuring that we use standards that are applicable in major tours across the globe. As much as we may have a long way to go compared to leading world tours, it will be a great thing to be able to savor global status.

The essence is to improve the quality of golf played by our professional golfers as well as provide a viable career that our youth can aspire towards. Training of junior golfers will be key. We have also been working to impart knowledge of tournament administration to officials.”

Asked which tournament rules would interest fans, Wang’ombe went on: “In the ‘One Ball Rule’, professional golfers are supposed to use one brand of balls for every round. When a player tees off with a Titleist ProVI, they can’t change to a Pinnacle on the second hole. What’s more, the ‘No Riding’ Rule means players are not allowed to use golf carts or even get a lift on them unless it is from a Rules Official taking the player back to hit a shot.

Thirdly, for the “No Shorts’ rule; men are not allowed to play in shorts during the main tournament. These are some of the interesting facets of the tournament that fans can discover as we progress. These are rules that are adopted from some of the other established tours across the globe.”

And how has the new qualification format reenergized Safari Tour? Wang’ombe explains: “I believe it has generated considerable excitement and rivalry to an extent that we have had different winners for each of the three events that we’ve had this far. The competition is very fierce now and serves up great moments ahead for the pros and amateurs alike. Like last season, this year’s Kenya Open will also witness some interesting wild-cards.

Wang’ombe said: “The wildcard is used to invite a player from a country, where our main sponsor may need viewers. Last year, we invited Shubankar Sharma from India and internet sensation Hu Song Choi from Korea who were joined by the 2018 European Ryder Cup Captain Thomas Bjørn.”

Choi graced last year’s Kenya Open with his exceptional swing, which saw him lift his right foot off the ground and swinging it around his body before using one of several different finishing moves.

The South Korean became a social media sensation after footage of his “fisherman’s swing” was widely shared online. He accepted an invitation to compete in the 2019 Magical Kenya Open.”

Then 45-year-old Korean became an instant celebrity in Kenya upon his wildcard. Choi is well-known for his theatrical swing, but also has three worldwide titles to his name — including the Casio World Open which he won in Japan in 2018.

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Naomi Wafula makes history 

As much as pros have headlined the Safari Tour, the event has also been designed with amateurs in mind. So far, leading amateurs have featured in the Tour including elite men and women as well as juniors. Among them are Naomi Wafula, Adel Balala (Mombasa), Taimur Malik (Muthaiga) and his team-mate Mutahi Kibugi. Occasionally, Kibugu and Balala have savoured some impressive runs. Wafula became the first women to make the Safari Tour cut at Sigona.

Hearing-impaired golfer Isaac Makokha had the Kenya Open slot in the bag following his win at the coveted Kenya Amateur Match-play Championship recently. Makokha hopes to become the first golfer of his kind to grace the Kenya Open. He has been using the Safari Tour to perfect his long and short game skills.

“The Safari Tour is a wonderful platform for amateurs in the run-up to the Kenya Open. It is also going to help them develop an interest in professional golf as a career. The idea of a Pro-Am is one that happens in a lot of tours. We can’t claim that it is our idea. The whole purpose of a Pro-Am is to give the members of the club an opportunity to play with the pros.

The sponsors of the event can also use it to reward their members. Kenyan pros have always participated in the regional tournaments. We also get a lot of requests from the region to include their pros in the Kenya Open.

When we started the Safari Tour, we knew that we had to create a big pool of players to try and also entice sponsors as well as give all the professional golfers a level playing field to qualify for Kenya Open,” Wang’ombe said in finality.

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