As the golf fraternity focused on the professionals dueling for the 79th Uganda Open last week, a relatively unknown Kenya amateur golfer went about his business quietly and with ruthless efficiency in Kampala. John Lejirma was here to battle against a star-studded field of top amateur golfers for the Uganda Open Amateur title.
After a grueling four days, against all odds and accompanying razzmatazz, Lejirma won the title posting an impressive level par score to upstage the fancied home players.
Going by history, Uganda Open has proved to be a tough nut for Kenya amateur players. The amateur trophy has remained elusive with Daniel Nduva’s win last year ending a barren spell of 12 years. Only Nicholas Rokoine, 2007, and David Odhiambo, 2004, have managed to wrestle the title from Ugandans in recent times.
The mission for the amateurs this year was exacerbated by a lean entry list of only seven players as top guns including defending champion Nduva and strokeplay champion Jay Sandhu gave the event a wide berth. Kenya’s hopes of retaining the title lay on Adel Balala, Isaac Makokha, John Lejirma, Peter Rimui, Simon Karari and John Mburu.
“We knew it was going to be a daunting task. Uganda Open is a very prestigious event and winning it means so much for the locals and they were well prepared for the event. Factor in the tricky Uganda Golf Club course layout and our work was cut out,” said Lejirma.
What ensued in the four days at Kitante was a battle of nerves, as the Railway Golf Club player calculated meticulously, one shot at a time, enroute to clinching the title. He launched his campaign rather slowly shooting 75 for T4 finish on day one followed by a modest 72 on day two. Full of confidence and with title prospects in sight, Lejirma carded three under par 69 in the penultimate round and crowned it with a steady 71 on the final day. Rimui, 8th and Balala, 9th, also finished in the top 10.
“I didn’t start off well. But after the first two rounds I realized a win was within reach. By the time we went into the third round, I was feeling so confident and very conversant with the course. Most of the par fours were relatively short but getting to some par fives on regulation was a tall order. I decided to get more aggressive as my iron play and short game were all on point. And not to forget the invaluable contribution of my excellent caddie,” an elated Lejirma remembers.
In the run up to Uganda Open, Lejirma had exhibited inconsistency in form. Not a “galactico” amateur player, success has long eluded Lejirma in the local championships. He finished third in this year’s Kenya Amateur Matchplay Championship but had an outing to forget at the Kenya Strokeplay Championship.
“The performance at Uganda Open was way beyond my expectations. Since it was my first time to play in an international event of this magnitude, I was just targeting a top 10 finish. The extremely wet course was so challenging. Fortunately, I invested a lot of time on the practice during the last one month sharpening my iron play,” said Lejirma who was fully sponsored by Railway Golf Club members.
Having started playing golf just five years ago, the reality of winning an international tournament is yet to dawn on Lejirma. His ascendancy to stardom is more by chance granted that Lejirma’s ambition at that time of discovering the game of golf was only to earn a living as a caddy. True to his lowly ambitions, his first port of call was Golf Park where he started caddying for resident pro Joseph Karanja. “I suddenly developed the urge to learn the game. Within a few weeks, I started participating in caddy tournaments. Then, I adjusted my work schedule and would be on the practice range daily at 6am before getting down to caddy work,” he recalls.
His talent did not go unnoticed. In 2015 he was awarded membership at Golf Park and started turning out for the Ngong Racecourse club in the Nairobi District League before moving to Railways in 2017 where he landed a job as a Golf Administrator.
Now playing off +1 handicap, 27-year old Lejirma is not in a hurry to quit the amateur league for paid ranks: “I am hungry for more titles. I really want to win the Tannahill Shield with the Railways team, lower my handicap to around +4 after which I will turn pro.”
Born and brought up in Nakuru, Lejirma is forever grateful to his boyhood pal Raphael Lamiyani for introducing him to the sport. “Though am relatively young in this game, it has really opened doors for me. The networks I have managed to build and the international exposure achieved playing for the national time is just unbelievable,” Lejirma sums up his experience.
Even as the Uganda Open Amateur champion savours his victory, much will be expected from him in next year’s Kenya Amateur Golf Championship series. And to be inducted into the “galacticos” league in 2021, Lejirma will have to better his successive semifinal appearances at Kenya Amateur Matchplay championship and plot a successful coup at the Strokeplay event for an unprecedented “KGU Majors” sweep.