South Africa’s Hennie du Plessis is a full time professional golfer on the European Tour currently occupying position 338 in the World Golf Ranking-OWGR. Unknown to many Kenyans, Du Plessis was playing against his peers in the junior competitions in Kenya seven years ago and even won the Kenya Junior Championship at Muthaiga Golf Club ahead of Daniel Nduva. His transition from the amateur to pro ranks has been smooth and swift. To the contrary, not so for his peers in Kenya.
Kenya junior golfers have often performed relatively well in continental amateur events. The cohort of Daniel Nduva, Agil Is-hag, Mathew Wahome, Adel Balala, John Mburu and Tahir Mohammed traversed the world between 2012 and 2018 representing Kenya in high profile tournaments including the British Junior Open and Africa Youth Olympic games. Out of these stars, only two- Nduva and Wahome have since turned pro. But unlike Du Plessis they are yet to reap any commercial benefits from their talent.
A new crop of junior stars has since emerged featuring the Kibugu brothers- Mutahi and Njoroge, Taimur Malik and Leo Zurovac, just to name a few. But will they fare any better and turn pro while at the pinnacle of their talent?
It is an open secret that success at the junior golf level has largely belonged to boys and girls from Kenya’s affluent families. This is not by chance! The investment- time and money- required to successfully train a child to become a good golfer is enormous, to say the least. One parent estimates that it costs upwards Kshs 15 million to walk a 10 year old through the journey till they are able to compete at the highest amateur levels in Africa! This is indeed beyond the capacity of the Junior Golf Federation, JGF, as the honchos in this cash-strapped federation grapple with a myriad of problems that have sadly blinded them from their realising the junior golf development vision.
Over time, some families and clubs, notably Nyali Golf Club and Muthaiga Golf Club, have stepped up their game and invested in the junior golfers, a move that has seen Kenya perform well in international competitions.
However a worrying trend is slowly emerging and will soon have far reaching ramifications on Kenya’s talent pipeline at the professional level; the elite juniors are shunning professional golf and opting to build careers in other fields away from the golf course.
Renowned junior golf ambassador Taufiq Balala is not surprised by this development but warns that it is an issue that should be urgently addressed. “The young players are simply seeking better avenues to develop their lives through education after realizing there’s no end-goal for professional golf in Kenya,” says Balala, father of upcoming star Adel Balala.
And Balala has seen it all. Having been involved in junior golf development for the last 15 years, he is indeed a frustrated man as he watches, helplessly, as the fortunes of Kenya’s pro golf dwindle. He said: “There are no proper structures and funds at the pro level in Kenya. Local pros are on a journey to the unknown and end up ditching golf for employment!”
But all is not lost, says Balala, observing that a tripartite effort involving government, private sector and Kenya Golf Union can help remedy the situation. “There’s a lot of money being expended by corporates on amateur and club events. These funds could be harnessed so that the pro level can also get a share while at the same time the government must deliberately set up structures to encourage nurturing of golf talent. Not all children must become Doctors, Engineers… we must also pride ourselves in producing world class sportsmen,” Balala advices.
In deed the scenario is worrying. The Professional Golfers of Kenya, PGK, has a membership of less than 100 golfers in a country that boasts of close to 10,000 active golfers. PGK admits an average of two members annually a trend Balala says must be reversed. “In an ideal scenario, players should turn pro at the age of 17 years. We must look for ways of incentivizing young top amateurs to turn pro. But this will only happen if we have a proper local pro Tour with well-funded tournaments that will not only ensure the players can earn a living from the game but also prepare them to perform well in foreign events,” he said.
So would a man who has given it all in chaperoning his son to become a world class player including financing his golf education at Tuks Sports High School in Pretoria, South Africa allow his son to turn pro? “I know Adel would like to turn pro but let us be realistic; how is he going to fend for himself and family in future. Unless things change drastically, he is better off furthering his education at the university and playing golf just for fun,” Balala said.
No doubt, the emerging crop of youngsters at the amateur level is full of promise. It remains to be seen if this cohort will embrace professional golf and make their talent count for something in the long run.