Jacob Okello and Tiger Woods have something in common; they turned pro in 1996. Sadly the similarities between the two golfers end here! A look at the career path of the two golf peers over the last 25 years’ brings out a stark contrast in fortunes, underlining the soft belly of professional golf in Kenya.
According to Forbes, since turning pro, Woods has made over Kshs 160 billion on the course, through endorsements and course design fees! American firm Duff & Phelps projects that he will rake in a further Kshs 20 billion in the next years before he turns 50 years old.
At 51 years of age, Jacob Okello is no doubt Kenya’s most decorated golfer. His golf resume is quite impressive. He was the number one amateur player in Kenya 1992-1994; has the most appearances at Kenya Open-11; holds the course record at Muthaiga Golf Club- 11 under par 61; two top five finishes at Kenya Open; the only local who has come close to winning Kenya Open- lost in the playoff in 1998. This, undeniably, is an enviable success-rate going by local standards but a pale shadow of what his peers have accomplished over time.
Jacob’s light bulb moment came in 1998 at the Kenya Open. No one had expected the 30 year old to put in such a strong performance, let alone challenge for the top honours, in a star-studded field of the European Tour Championship event. “I remember that afternoon as if it was yesterday. Having been on top of the leaderboard with four holes to play, it’s unfortunate I couldn’t complete the job. Honestly, I didn’t deserve to lose but inexperience cost me dearly. But I have since overcome the setback,” Jacob reminisces.
Ricardo González the Argentine professional golfer who conquered Jacob on that fateful afternoon, would proceed to enjoy a relatively successful career in the paid ranks. He went on to win several events on the European Tour, the climax of his career being several appearances on the elite PGA tour.
So how did Jacob’s promising career stagnate?
For his exploits at the 1998 Kenya Open, the door of opportunities was flung wide open for Jacob. He was sponsored to play on the Sunshine Tour for two years where he enjoyed limited success. Things got even better when he was signed up by Gow Sports Management Company, a move that enabled him to play on the European Tour Championship for four years gracing courses in Austria, Britain, Denmark, Norway, Russia and Sweden. With a limited return on investment on the trot, in 2003 Jacob switched to golf teaching and management at Golf Park, Kenya’s first public course.
“This is not the way I had envisioned my career path. I had the talent and I believe I would have achieved a lot. I blame it on lack of structures for management of professional golf in Kenya,” Jacob observed.
Back to the Jacob Okello, Tiger Woods dichotomy. Since turning pro, Woods has played in close to 400 events at the highest level. This is a luxury that has eluded Jacob, who has been forced to rely on low-key stodgy events on the local professional golf calendar. A casual look at the PGA and European Tour calendars indicates that each season has at least 20 events. The same cannot be said of Kenya. Starved of sponsorship, local professionals are reduced to an average of eight events annually.
“It is unfortunate that our corporates do not believe in us. Though sports is big business worldwide, local companies prefer to adopt a wait-and- see approach. They only want to associate with and invest in players who are in the international limelight. Corporates must be ready to grow with talent. It is cheaper to sign up an upcoming player than going for established talent,” he pointed out.
When Jacob, a progeny of legendary professional golfer Ben Okello, swapped his soccer boots for golf clubs, he knew he was destined for big things. Having been introduced to golf at the age of five at Kampala Club where his dad worked, clearly all has not gone according to the script. So does he regret the decision to go into golf full time?
“Never! Though I haven’t attained PGA or European Tour level success, I have derived so much satisfaction in this game. One of the legacies I will proudly leave behind is producing a steady pipeline of professional golfers. Since I commenced coaching in 2003, I have helped transition many players from amateur to pro ranks. My dream is to work with young golfers to produce a player who will win Kenya Open,” Jacob says nonchalantly.
A golf aficionado, Jacob is not impressed with the current state of affairs in the local pro ranks. He feels the technical and commercial aspects of the game have not been given the attention they warrant. “Golf has become more technical nowadays. We must invest more in technical support and player motivation systems. We simply lack structures. I am happy with what is coming through the Safari Tour, but we need more. We need a defined system that will culminate in an annual calendar with at least 24 events every year- two per month with a defined commercial structure,” Jacob advised.
At 51 years of age, Jacob is not in a hurry to exit the stage. In fact, he is even hungrier, raring to make up for “the lost opportunities”. Starting next year, a cocky Jacob will plunge in the seniors’ events with an eye on The European Senior Tour qualifiers and a spell on the Sunshine Senior Tour. “Believe you me, am hungry for success. I have the right mindset and I know I will achieve more on the seniors’ tour. My ultimate goal is to feature on the PGA Tour Champions. I had planned to debut the seniors tour this year but was forced to defer to next year after coronavirus disrupted the international golf calendar,” he said.
International success has eluded Jacob in his stint as a professional golfer. But he is unbowed. Perhaps one day, Tiger Woods and the pros cohort of 1996, will go head to head with Jacob on the seniors tour. Armed with wisdom gathered over a quarter a century as a professional golfer, hopefully, Jacob will prevail this time round.