Naomi Wafula was no doubt the poster child of the Rose Naliaka Academy. She was the S.I unit of success in junior golf. Between 2010 and 2014, she epitomized success of affirmative action in golf, more so for girls and the less privileged. The girl from Kitale arrived on the golf scene with a bang!
Despite being born in a humble family in rural Kitale, Naomi’s life took a different trajectory when she was adopted at the age of three years by her aunt the legendary Rose Naliaka, Kenya’s first woman professional golfer. In her sunset years in the sport, Naliaka decided to introduce the girl to the sport at the tender age of six, driven perhaps by the foresight that her retirement would create a lacuna in the ladies circles. “My aunt used to take me along to watch her playing in all competitions. I was so inspired by the many prizes she won every week. It is this routine that made me readily take up golf,” Naomi reminisces.
By the age of 10 years, Naomi had been introduced to competitive golf. And it even got better when her aunt launched the Rose Naliaka Academy meaning she could now spend more time practicing. And the dividends came fast; she won her first event at the age of 10 during the annual “Mother and Daughter” event at Karen. What was to follow was a flurry of prizes. She swept virtually all titles before her in the junior and senior categories a feat that saw Naomi being called to the ladies national team aged only 12 years old- the youngest call-up ever. In 2011, at the age of 14, she won the ‘most promising sportswoman’ award at the SOYA awards. And as they say, success begets success. Naomi would go on to represent Kenya at the All Africa Challenge in Botswana where she won the juniors trophy in 2012 and the following year, was declared Junior Golf Foundation Top Girl of the Year.
And then the wheels started coming off!
The year 2014 is one that the soft-spoken Naomi would love to forget. In what she vaguely describes as the “beginning of personal problems”, Naomi started losing focus both on and off the golf course. Was it a case of success getting into her head or just the tribulations of adolescence getting the better of her?
“By this time, I was experiencing so much pressure in my life. Sadly, to escape the emerging problems, I started experimenting with drugs and alcohol,” Naomi remembers with regret. And this would mark the beginning of her fall from grace. In the ensuing two years, Naomi started losing the joy and thrill of golf, opting to stay away from the practice range and competitions. In fact, in 2016, she even snubbed a call-up to the ladies national team that was scheduled to play in Tunisia, a decision that infuriated the KLGU honcho so much that she was blacklisted. Sadly this defiance by Naomi, was only wished away as an act of disobedience. Little did the golf world notice young Naomi was fast-descending to the abyss.
“I just lost interest in golf completely. At school things were even worse. First, I was expelled from school. During this dark spell I was in and out of more than 10 schools. I even moved out of my Aunt’s place and was just hobnobbing with friends,” Naomi recalls.
By 2017, the situation was getting really worse. Immersed in to the world of drugs and losing respect and friends in the golf fraternity, Naomi went to stay with a relative in Nakuru but would soon move out when she attempted to have her checked into a rehabilitation facility. Eventually, a well-wisher convinced her to go back to her rural home in Kitale and unite with her mother.
“When I arrived in Kitale, it felt so strange. I had never lived with my mother since I was three years old. It was a sobering moment for me. I reflected a lot on my life. And as I fellowshipped with my mother, I got saved. And with it, I stopped taking drugs and alcohol. It was the turning point in my life,” Naomi remembers.
After a brief stint and idling at home, Naomi’s interest in golf was rekindled. She started visiting Kitale Club where well-wishers happily fund-raised for her membership fees to get “the girl from home” back to golf. And with this gesture, Naomi was back, doing what she knows best; swinging. Soon, thanks to the generosity of the Kitale Club members, she started participating in golf tournaments. At the end of 2018, lady luck smiled at Naomi again when BetLion offered her a job in Nairobi, as part of efforts to get her back into competitive golf. Today she is a Call Centre Agent, working during the morning shift from 6am to 2pm, with the rest of the day devoted to golf practice at Golf Park.
“This is literally my second chance and I have grabbed it with both hands. I am now financially stable and my employer caters for all my expenses during competitions. Now mature and focused, coupled with God’s guidance, I am ready to conquer the world of golf,” said Naomi.
And the drive and determination of the “born again” Naomi is there for all to see. She made a proper comeback last year joining the Safari Tour which saw her get an invitation to the Ladies European Tour Magical Kenya where she was the best placed Kenyan. This year she is more active on the Safari Tour and she even achieved the rare feat of making the cut at the last event held at Sigona.
Now 23 years old and playing off handicap 3, she has very little time to recover the years that were ‘devoured by the cankerworm’. Having conquered the local amateur circuit even before her self-imposed exile, Naomi can only dream of turning pro, in a country where there’s only one professional lady golfer. “I had set myself a target of turning professional by the end of this year. Things are a little complicated since I cannot gain pro status through Professional Golfers of Kenya as PGK is not responsible for the ladies game. I will have to play in tournaments outside the country preferably South Africa or Asia to make it happen,” Naomi lays her plans.
It may have just been a hiccup, as Naomi’s journey towards stardom is for sure back on track if her resolve is anything to go by: “Salvation has really changed the way I look at life. With God in my life, I am now wiser. I believe I have the talent and all I need to do is work hard and remain focused. I shall forever be indebted to Aunt Rose Naliaka for introducing me to this great sport, it was such a blessing. My big breakthrough is nigh.”