Larry Ngala is a household name in the local golf circles. Covering golf tournaments weekly for the last 45 years, Larry has witnessed first-hand key moments both locally and internationally. Through golf Larry has managed to rub shoulders with powerful Presidents including George Bush snr, Nelson Mandela and elite professionals including the all-time great Tiger Woods. In his tour of duty, Larry has been to several key prestigious international events including The British Open, US Masters and the Presidents Cup. He shared with T-OFF his experiences and thoughts on developing the sport.
T-OFF: When did you start writing golf stories?
LN: I started writing golf stories officially in 1975, a year after my first involvement with the Nation Newspapers, first in the Kiswahili paper “Taifa Leo” and later in the Daily Nation in 1977 as an assistant golf writer to the late Charles Disney. I officially took over as the golf correspondent in 1980 when I started playing golf at Kenya Railway Golf Club.
T-OFF: How did you develop interest in this sport that was not very well known to many?
LN: I started developing interest in golf way back in the late 1960s in the United States, but was not able to play in the US until when I came back to Kenya in July 1974. My interest increased when I started typing golf results stories for Charles Disney. I later became a friend of the late John Mucheru who officially introduced me to Railway golf club in 1978 and offered to teach me how to play the game. Mucheru not only taught me until I got my handicap in 1980 but also paid my membership of Sh3,800 at Railway Golf Club and gave me the first set of Wilson Staff Golf Clubs.
T-OFF: How do you describe the golf scene when you started writing and the present state?
LN: Up to 1978, Golf was still very much a sport for the rich. There were very few Africans among the 800 golfers with official handicaps. There was hardly any publicity as Disney concentrated on only two clubs (Karen and Muthaiga). Mucheru encouraged me to write about the African golfers particularly at Railway, Kiambu, Thika and Machakos. Many of these clubs started sending their fixtures and results to Nation when they realized that there was an African writing about golf.
T-OFF: Which is your most memorable moment as a golf writer?
LN: My most memorable moment as a golf writer is when I was invited to cover the 2003 President’s Cup match between US and the Internationals (rest of the world save for Europe) at Fancourt George South Africa, where I had an opportunity to chat with retired president George Bush Snr, the honorary chairman of the President’s Cup, former South African presidents Nelson Mandela, Frederick De Klerk, and Thabo Mbeki. I was able to interview players like Tiger Woods, Vijay Singh, Ernie Ells. Though my first major or international event to attend was the British Open in 1996, the same year I also watched the US Masters at Augusta in USA.
T-OFF: Any disappointing moments?
LN: Most disappointing moment is when Kenyan pro golfer John “Wonder Boy”” Ngugi came close to winning the Zambian Open in 1989 after leading for three rounds, only to blow up his chances in the final round and Jacob Okello’s 1998 defeat by Argentina’s Ricaldo Gonzalez in the sudden death playoff. These turn of events spoiled what was definitely going to be a front page story in the Kenyan newspapers.
T-OFF: Whom would you single out as your all-time best Kenyan golfer?
LN: John Mucheru will forever remain my best Kenyan golfer. This is because of his high standard of discipline on and outside the golf course. He was so dedicated and had genuine love of the sport. His record breaking victories in the Golfer of The Year events in 1978 will for many years remain untouched.
T-OFF: How do you rate the standards of our local pros i.e. the 1970s and 1980s pros compared to the current crop of pros?
LN: Professional golf in Kenya has come of age; it cannot be compared with the 1970s and 1980s because there were only a handful of pros then. Today Kenyan pros can compare to others in other countries such as South Africa and Europe. A big number of them are capable of playing and winning events in any tour given sponsors support. They have been able to excel with very minimum support. I am glad I have played a major role over the years to promote pro golf in Kenya.
T-OFF: You have seen Kenya Open grow for some time now. How would you describe the transformation?
LN: Kenya Open, like the local professionals, has developed to international standards. From little prize money of Sh10, 000 in 1967 to close to Sh30m today, Kenya Open is probably one of the events that have had tremendous growth. It has produced some of the world’s best golfers today, and as Kenyans we must be proud of the Kenya Open. Having been involved in the organization of the event, I must say local companies such and Kenya Breweries, BAT, Standard Chartered Bank, the Sameer Group of companies, and lately Barclays Bank have played a major role in keeping the open going.
T-OFF: Is Kenya ready to host more events of the magnitude of Kenya Open in the same calendar year?
LN: In fact we need more than four such events in the country if we want to promote golf as a tourism product. I have been for a long time advocating for a Sunshine Tour in Kenya because of the fact that Sunshine Tour events are covered by Super Sport which means exposing Kenya to the rest of the world. Kenya Open now needs to be upgraded to the level of a European International Tour if it has to survive for a long time. It is the oldest round in the Challenge Tour at the moment.
T-OFF: Do you see a Kenyan winning the Kenya Open in the near future?
LN: It is possible for a Kenyan to win the Kenya Open, but the country has to invest in the local professionals particularly the young players. The Europeans who come for the Kenya Open play at least 34 events in a year while our pros play not more than 10 serious events. They have to play out there in the Challenge Tour along with the rest for them to gain the needed experience.
T-OFF: There have been numerous attempts to “spread” the game of golf but this has not worked. What do you think is curtailing the growth of the game?
LN: Golf will not be developed by only encouraging those who already have the opportunity to play the game. The talent is out there in the slums and rural areas. There is need to develop golf academies in every region in the country. The biggest example of how Kenya can develop the game of golf is the way Rose Naliaka is doing. This requires more money which at the moment is being spent to sponsor those golfers already playing the game. There is very little being put in golf development. The Kenya Golf Union needs to be proactive in its programmes through the Junior Golf Foundation and Golf Talent Foundation. By organizing more pro events through the Kenya Open Golf Limited, KGU will be able to raise more funds to put into golf development. At the same time, every county should be able to develop golf practicing range as a starting point.
T-OFF: Corporates are quite generous with sponsorship of the amateur level tournaments yet there are very few events for pros. Why is there a reluctance to invest in the pro game?
LN: The reason why golf as a sport is not developing is because we have not developed serious pro golf. You cannot develop amateur golf without an organized pro golf. We need to train our local professionals to become coaches in order to improve standards. Right now we have very few pros in the country who have been trained as coaches. We need as many Charles Farrars, Elisha Kasukus and Johnny Limb jnrs who have gone through coaching programmes. But at the same time, corporates must invest in the local pros as they form a strong foundation for the sport, but the pros must also be well organized. There is need to have an organized pro tour which should be run by a board of top business executives. Professional Golfers of Kenya (PGK) along with KGU have no business running events; their roles should be purely advisory.
T-OFF: Who is your favourite international pro?
LN: Despite all the problems he went through which had nothing to do with the game, Tiger Woods remains the most outstanding professional. His coming to golf completely transformed the sport.
T-OFF: If you were to stop covering golf today, which alternative sport would you pick?
LN: Although I have been involved in virtually all the other sports, I do not see myself going back to any of them. Golf is my life and whether I am reporting on golf or not, I will remain in golf. I have passion for the game of golf and having helped nurture and develop it locally, it has become part of me.