There was little magic about the 2021 Magical Kenya Open European Tour event that was held at the par-71 Karen Country Club in Nairobi last weekend.
South African Justin Harding may have smiled as he banked Sh20 million for his win, having improved from joint-second in 2019, but for Kenyan golfers, the Kenya Open Golf Limited (KOGL) who are the organisers of the event and the Kenyan government, the title sponsor, there was little to smile about.
In 2019, Kenya Open joined the prestigious European Tour as the government sought to use the game to boost tourism.
The 2020 edition was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic with the 2021 edition looking to build on the 2019 gains. With coronavirus still a threat, the 2021 Open was played without fans in attendance and with golfers and caddies in a bio-secure bubble.
This meant the visiting golfers did not adequately sample Kenya’s tourist attractions.
When announcing the Kenya Tourism Board title sponsorship in 2019 of the Kenya Open, Tourism Cabinet Secretary Najib Balala had celebrated the fact that the event would be beamed into homes globally. A television reach estimated at a possible 600 million viewers was set to offer a great marketing opportunity for Kenya as a tourist destination.
However, due to what the European Tour Productions termed as “logistical difficulties” the live world feed coverage that was to be used by Sky Sports and global broadcast partners was unavailable for three of the four days of the Magical Kenya Open.
No international TV coverage meant that if there was any magic on the greens it was being seen by a handful of people, a huge blow to Kenya’s ambition to be a sports tourism hub through the hosting of high-profile international sports events.
In June, the iconic Safari Rally is poised to rev off as a World Rally Championship leg. Kenya’s ability to pull off a flawless Safari amidst Covid-19 will lie in its ability to have world-class organisation and attention to detail.
The world will be watching if the WRC Safari Rally organisers will have learnt from the mistakes of the 2021 Magical Kenya Open.
Even if there was little to cheer, one Kenyan professional golfer, Samuel Njoroge of Railway Club made the cut in 2021 down from the two— Simon Ngige of Thika Golf Club and Justus Madoya of Great Rift Valley Lodge Golf Resort —in 2019.
Mr Njoroge, 25, carded at par overall after rounds of 72, 68, 74, 70 to finish at position 77. For his efforts, he took home Sh293,000, plus an additional Sh100,000 award.
No Kenyan professional golfer has ever won the Kenya Open with Jacob Okello’s second-place finish in 1998 the closest a Kenyan has gotten to success. Mr Okello is still representing Kenya 23 years later.
From a layman’s perspective, there are various reasons as to the continued poor performance of Kenyan golfers. First, golf still retains an elitist tag and is not seen as an actual sport by the general public.
Second, the median age that Kenyan professional golfers pick up the sport is quite high compared to top golfers globally.
Third, sponsorship of actual golfers to horn their skills at high-level golf events outside the country is negligible. Fourth, the public golf facility at Lenana School that has been promised for years by the government is yet to be built.
Shed elitist tag
A public golf facility would take the sport to the masses in ways the members-only golf clubs cannot and attract less-privileged children to the sport, thus removing the elitist tag while reducing the age of pro-golfers.
Public tennis spaces in the underprivileged areas of California in America gave the world the phenomenal Williams sisters.
However, the one magical thing about the Kenya Open is its ability to attract sponsorship. While other sports federations are barely surviving, Kenya Open Golf has many sponsors. Kenya Tourism Board, Vision 2030 Delivery secretariat, Absa Kenya, Kenya Breweries Limited all swung in with millions of shillings to boost the 2021 Magical Kenya Open.
How to turn the cash liquidity to Kenyan success on the greens is the million-dollar question.