It is 7am on Saturday on a chilly morning and a four-ball is warming up waiting for the starter’s cue to for their turn on the tee at Railways Golf Club. A closer look at the four-ball reveals one conspicuous player; it is the octogenarian Ben Okello! Undeterred by the chilly conditions, Okello swings perfectly and hits the ball perfectly in the middle of the otherwise narrow fairway and with some respectable distance.
Ben Okello is indeed a decorated soldier in the game of golf. His exploits which have seen him compete for the Uganda national team coupled with the success of his son Jacob Okello have no doubt earned him revered status in golfing circles.
Okello half-heartedly retired from active golfing in 2001 after being slowed down by a bout of meningitis. But this misfortune was not going to keep him off golf as he took up the role of resident professional at the Kenya Railway Club where he has since been runs golf lessons.
Going by his vast experience, Okello is no doubt an authority in the sport.
Okello’s dalliance with golf started almost by accident. While at Semenya Secondary School in the 1950s, Okello was a top footballer and athlete something that earned him a place at the then prestigious Maseno Teachers College.
But Okello did not fancy the teaching profession because he thought most teachers were cowards. “During those days I would see teachers running away at the sight of School Inspectors who would force them to put on shorts. If a teacher had donned a trouser, the sight of an Inspector would send them scampering for dear life. It made me vow never to be a teacher so when I earned admission to Maseno Teachers College, I opted to move to Uganda,” he remembers.
While in Uganda, Okello got a job at the Kampala Tennis Club where he occasionally saved some money to pay for green fees at the Kampala Golf Club.
His big break came when he got a job at a law firm and his employer encouraged him to take up golf seriously. His game improved tremendously as he got many opportunities to play against his erstwhile boss and other opponents. While in Uganda, he also played at Tororo Golf Club.
In 1969, Okello played his first competitive match by taking part in the Kampala Open during which he played of handicap seven. A week after the Kampala Open, he took part in the Tororo Open championships which he won and dropped his handicap to two. He was a major hit in Uganda to a point where he earned a call-up to the national team. He was to stay there until 1973 before he decided to return home. Upon returning home Okello got a job at New Stanley Hotel which allowed him to continue with his passion at Railway Club.
Okello’s resume is colorful, no doubt. He has toured several countries while playing for the Kenya national team including Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Uganda. He has fond memories of Sri Lanka where he took part in the Colombo Open losing in the semi-finals. His major achievements on the course include the 1971 Uganda Open win, double coronation win at Nakuru Golf club which made him a life member at the facility as well as a66 gross course record at Nyali Golf Club.
And like any successful father, the senior Okello speaks proudly of his son Jacob Okello, an accomplished golf professional and one of the most successful pros in Kenya. “It’s like he was born playing golf. During holidays, he used to come to Railway Club where I was a member and here he developed his passion for golf. I did all I could to encourage him.
“He has really done very well. I always remember how he came close to winning the Kenya Open in 1997 where he lost in the play-off. Unfortunately, from that time on, his game has gone down but I am confident he will come back soon stronger and better. He just needs peace of mind and focus and he will have it back soon,” he says of his son who is currently the resident professional at Golf Park.
Apart from Jacob, his three other children have not had interest in the sport.
Okello sees a bright future for the sport in Kenya and believes turning professional gives players an opportunity to earn a living from the sport. “During our time, it was purely amateur and the only tournament which paid then was the Kenya Open. However, things have since changed tremendously and young players now have an opportunity to turn professional and make money from the sport,” the doyen advises.
He however admits that the lack of public golf courses in most parts of the country has hindered the growth of the sport but insists that the Kenya Golf Union (KGU) is doing a lot to help spread golf especially among junior players.
Having just turned 80 years old, Okello’s passion and experience make him a gem in the sport of golf in Kenya.