Sibling Rivalry: Brothers at the apex of golf in Kenya

  • November 9, 2020
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The current membership roll of the Professional Golfers of Kenya has close to 60 active players. A closer look at these names reveals interesting kinship ties. Curiously, close to 20% of the PGK members are blood brothers. So this begs the question; is it a case of “golf running in the in family blood” or sheer coincidence?  

John Wangai and Samuel Njoroge

The entry of Samuel Njoroge into the paid ranks two months ago has ignited sibling rivalry as the apprentice threatens to upstage his teacher. Samuel’s arrival has shaken the order in Professional Golfers of Kenya, PGK, and he’s currently ranked third on the Safari Tour money list on his debut season. Though a shocker to many, big brother John Wangai, the current PGK captain, is not surprised.

The brothers trace their involvement in golf back to Njoro Country Club, where they lived with their grandfather. It is here that their father discovered the joy of golf while working at the club precincts and decided to pass on the “secret” to his sons. Having seen how his masters were enjoying the game, Joseph Chege Wangai did not waste time and introduced his elder son John to the game at the age  of nine. “Our house was situated right inside the club so we grew up only knowing one sport- golf,” Wangai remembers.

Though not very interested in the sport, Wangai would find himself on the course on weekends performing caddy duties especially during major events due to shortage of caddies. After high school, he got more involved in caddy competitions and thus decided to take up the game seriously. He moved to Kenya Railways Golf Club in 2009 where he secured a job as a golf Administrator and got on to the KGU GOTY circuit. After a highly successful season on the GOTY circuit in 2012 which climaxed with a call up to the national team, Wangai turned pro in 2013.

His stellar career in the sport prompted the young Samuel to take cue. Through the mentorship of big brother John, he launched his career as a promising amateur at Njoro Club before taking up more challenges at Nanyuki Club and eventually at Kenya Railway Golf Club. To say Samuel has had a successful career at amateur level is an understatement. He swept all the accolades before him before turning pro when playing of handicap +4.

“I am so glad a I set a good example for my brother. The little success we are enjoying today is due to hard work and discipline. I thank dad for leading us down this path because the future of golf in this country is looking bright. Things are really opening up and it will soon become a better paying career,” Wangai concluded.

Jeff Kubwa

Jeff Kubwa and Isaac Makokha

Not much had been heard of the Makokha brothers until Isaac won this year’s Kenya Amateur Matchplay Championship. And it was a unique win! Makokha, who has a hearing impairment, became the first the first player with a disability to win the prestigious amateur event. It was during this eureka moment that many would discover that Isaac is a younger sibling of Muthaiga Golf Club resident pro Jeff Kubwa.

The Makokha’s trace back their dalliance with golf to Eldoret Golf Club. Literally born on the golf course, their father was employed at the Eldoret Club, an environment that opened their eyes early enough to the sport. Keen to discover the strange sport, Jeff developed an interest at age 10 and would follow golfers around the course. It is this curiosity that led him to design makeshift clubs made of wood to kick-start his career. Impressed by his keen interest and desire to play golf, a well-wisher gifted him his first playing kit. He was formally introduced to the game by the then Eldoret club pro John Kisia and made his debut into competitive golf during a national junior tournament at Muthaiga Golf Club in 2001 where he finished second. While at it, young Jeff had already taken his younger brother under his care at his humble abode in Eldoret since their parents had relocated to the village upon retirement.

Isaac Makokha

“Our bond was so tight since we grew up together and we are only separated by one year. I was the only one in the family who could communicate with Isaac since he had taught me some aspects of sign language. So when he came to stay with me, introducing him to golf was very easy,” remembers Jeff. For his exploits playing for Team Western at the Tannahill Shield 2013, Jeff was poached by Muthaiga Golf Club. Coming to Nairobi was godsend for Jeff as he moved along with Isaac, a move that gave his younger sibling better exposure at Vetlab. He joined the national team the following year and went on to be ranked the second best amateur player in the country for two consecutive seasons before turning pro in 2017.

“Golf has really changed our life as a family. This is the only job we know and our lives depend on it entirely,” said Jeff. Besides featuring actively on the Safari Tour where he is yet to make a breakthrough, Jeff is actively involved in coaching juniors at Muthaiga. He has a passion for mentoring juniors with special needs and is planning to roll out programme solely dedicated to children with special needs. Isaac’s moment of truth will come next year when he will go down in the history books as the first player with hearing impairment to play in the European Tour event at the Magical Kenya Open 2012. He then plans to turn pro and become golf’s ambassador in the community of people with special needs.

Nelson and Edwin Mudanyi

Edwin and Nelson Mudanyi

Very few local professional golfers can boast of the experience and exposure of Nelson Mudanyi. Another Eldoret Club prodigy, Nelson has had the privilege of playing on the United States of America college circuit and Sunshine Tour. From a very humble background, Nelson’s story is one of opportunity meeting preparedness. “I started playing golf in 1994 using home-made clubs when I was a very small boy. My father was a Chef at Eldoret Club so we didn’t have access to the course given our humble background,” Nelson recalls.

His breakthrough came when he met Ajay Shah, who was in Eldoret to play in a KGU event. Impressed by the young man’s interest and raw talent, Ajay adopted Nelson and moved him to his Naivasha home where he introduced him to proper golfer techniques. After a short stay, now playing of handicap 10, Nelson reunited with his father in Thika where he was granted junior membership at the Thika Sports Club. By the time he was turning 15 years old, the young man was already  playing of handicap one a feat that saw him earn the opportunity to represent Kenya at the Junior Open Championship in Scotland in 2004.

 Upon completing secondary school, Nelson had a great run on the amateur scene representing Kenya at numerous events. His second breakthrough came in 2010 when he was granted a golf scholarship to the United States by Hon Patrick Musimba, founder of the Golf Talent Foundation. While in the US, Nelson was engaged in active golf playing as an amateur till +3 before turning pro in 2012. Upon graduating with a bachelors degree in Golf Complex and Hotel Management, Nelson came home briefly before proceeding to South Africa where he played on the Sunshine Tour for three years.

Currently a resident pro at Muthaiga, Nelson’s exploits on the course caught his younger brother’s attention quite early. Lucky to have a predecessor, Edwin’s entry into golf has been seamless as big brother mentors him through every step. Though he started playing at a relatively older age at 16, Edwin has had it all going for him thanks to the financial and technical support of Nelson. Before turning pro last year, Edwin had represented Vetlab at the Tannahill events as well as turning out for the national team. He started off his professional career on a high note and is currently riding high on the Safari Tour.

“Edwin has a very promising future. I coach him a lot and all he needs to do is to maintain discipline. My going into golf before him has really opened his eyes and given him the urge to achieve more,” said Nelson.

Charan and Hardeep Tethy

Charan & Hardeep Thety

The scions of Davinder Tethy had a relatively cozy introduction in to the world of golf. Charan, currently the chairman of Professional Golfers of Kenya, and younger brother Hardeep were inducted to the sport when they were barely five years old. They owe it to their dad who was an active golfer at Royal Nairobi Golf Club and Sigona. Having seen how golf could change the fortunes of young men, Davinder encouraged his sons to take up the sport to the highest level.

 He would enroll them as junior members at Royal in 1988 where they were put under the tutelage of pro Elisha Kasuku. The young men took up the sport with gusto and by the time they were turning 17 years old, they were already playing off scratch. Encouraged by their talent, Davinder sponsored them to play at the World Junior Golf championship in the United States of America, and the lads did not disappoint. For their exploits on the course, Charan and Hardeep secured golf scholarships and moved to University of Texas where they played on the US college circuit for four years.

Charan Thety

On their return home, they turned professional and immersed themselves in to the local game. Charan would later make an appearance on several events on the European Challenge Tour and Sunshine Tour before coming back home to take up a pro job at Royal and settle down to teaching. Less is heard of Hardeep, who opted to focus on the family business. The highlight of their glittering career was between 1993 to 1995, when alongside their elder brother Raj Pal, they played for the Kenya Amateur team.

“We have no regrets having devoted all our time to golf. This game has given us a lot of exposure, enabled us to meet so many people and above all, taught us so many life lessons,” said Charan.

Hesbon Kutwa & Robinson Owiti

Hesbon Kutwa

Remember the Simon Makonde fable? The story of Hesbon Kutwa, the Royal Nairobi Golf Club resident pro, is quite intriguing.  A late bloomer who took up golf at the age of 32, thanks to the foresight of his younger brother Robinson Owiti, Kutwa’s stint in the sport has been nothing short of a fairy tale. As a bubbly lad just through with secondary school education in Eldoret, Kutwa who was a talented footballer had his eyes set on making a living through soccer. He briefly played for local club Raymond FC during which time he trained as a textile Technician before ditching the profession for a career in pharmaceuticals. Not contented with the returns from the job, Kutwa packed his bags and headed to Nairobi to pursue a new challenge.

Robinson Owiti

It is while hobnobbing in the city that Owiti introduced him to friends at Royal Club where he secured a job as a grounds man, earning close to Kshs 110 per day. “I quickly realized that caddying had better prospects so I switched almost immediately,” Kutwa recalls. And this opened a whole new world for Kutwa. With the permission of the resident pro, Kutwa would soon start accessing the practice range to try out the sport. In less than a year at Royal, he started participating in caddy tournaments.

Switched-on, ambitious and eloquent, he rallied caddies together to introduce inter-club and national events while serving as the secretary of the group. Thanks to his prowess on the course, he started playing off handicap 9 and in less than two years he was already playing off handicap 2 quickly earning honorary membership at Royal. It is this rich vein of form that earned Kutwa a call up to the national team in 2008 before turning pro in 2009.

For ushering his elder brother into an unfamiliar sport, Owiti had the pressure of leading by example. And he has not disappointed. A tried and tested war horse, Owiti had a stellar career in the sport spanning more than 20 years. “I was attracted to golf while staying in Eldoret when I saw my friends winning numerous prizes. As a footballer, I had nothing to show of my hard work so switching allegiance to golf was very easy,” said Owiti. His long career as an amateur golfer saw him win more than 20 golfer of the Year event on the Kenya Golf Union circuit. Perhaps the longest serving player in the national team, Owiti has captained Team Kenya on numerous occasions winning several accolades in regional contests before turning pro in 2019, ten years after his brother.

“I cannot point out anything unique or spectacular about us! We owe it to humility and discipline. And indeed golf has changed our lives,” Kutwa sums up.

Boniface and Nelson Simwa

Boniface Simwa

The Simwa brothers are heavily indebted to the late Abdallah Baker for their success on the golf course. The man they affectionately refer to as “Baba” not only bought for them playing kits but was also responsible for introducing them to Vetlab Sports Club, which would become their home.  Their romance with golf however stretches back to Eldoret where big brother Boniface took up the sport at an early age.

“I used to visit the Club from a very young age since my father was working there. By the time I was in form two, I had already been granted honorary membership and I was playing off handicap 4,” Boniface recalls. Upon completing school, young Boniface secured a job in Nairobi and stopped playing golf.  After a long layoff lasting close to four years, in an interesting twist of events, he was introduced to Baker by his cousin Nelson Mudanyi. “It was pure coincidence. I had gone to watch Nelson as they were preparing for Tannahill. So when Baker was told that I was a semi-retired golfer who quit while playing off scratch, he convinced me to practice with the team. And Baker loved what he saw and incorporated me into the team,” said Boniface.  Having come out of semi-retirement, Baker convinced Boniface to take up the sport more seriously, a decision that saw him quit his daily job to focus on the sport. He immediately earned a place in the national team where he represented Kenya at the East Africa Challenge and Zone Six games before turning pro in 2010.

Nelson Simwa

Having seen the benefits of golf, he immediately brought the young Nelson on board. Though initially reluctant, Nelson would receive a lot of encouragement from Baker and joined the Vetlab league team through the Golf Talent Foundation programme. With his mind fully focused on golf, thanks to honorary membership and a job at Vetlab, Nelson scaled the heights rising to become the number one ranked amateur player in the country. He eventually turned pro in 2015 having attained the unprecedented +6 handicap as an amateur.

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