As 2019 comes to a close, many people are making new decade resolutions and Kenya’s lady golfers are teeing off into the future with purpose.
Fresh off playing in the inaugural Magical Kenya Ladies Open at Vipingo Ridge on Kenya’s coast, the golfers made firm commitments to take their A-game into 2020 and beyond.
At the inaugural Ladies European Tour held in Kenya for the first time last weekend, local golfers played with international golf stars. The tournament was held from December 5 to 8.
At this time of the year, coastal temperatures rise above 30 degrees Celsius at certain times of the day. Overcoming the heat, and rain on the fourth day, 20-year-old Esther Henseleit won the Magical Kenya Ladies Open trophy and the Order of Merit. She also took home 45,000 euros ($50,000) and was named Rookie of the Year.
With a course record of 64, Henseleit came from seven strokes behind the leader on Saturday, to win at 14 under par 274 on Sunday. And when she comes back next year, she is likely to get a run for her money from the Kenyans.
Kenya only has two women professional golfers at the moment, Rose Naliaka and Bhavi Shah. Naliaka is the first Kenyan woman professional golfer. She started playing golf in 1980 at the Kitale Golf Club and turned professional in 2005.
In 2007, she started the Naliaka Golf Academy and foundation to teach young girls how to play. Many of whom would never have otherwise had the opportunity to learn the game.
The Kenyans who played at Vipingo were Shah and amateurs Naomi Wafula, Margaret Njoki, Mercy Nyanchama and Agnes Nyakio. Wafula, Nyanchama and Nyakio started their golf journey at the Naliaka Golf Academy.
The ladies shared their experiences and what they learnt from their global counterparts over the four days of golf.
Njoki, 38, playing off handicap five, was chosen by the Kenya Ladies Golf Union to represent Kenya in the tournament. She has been playing for five years now, and teaches new players.
“I would like to turn pro in one year, so I need to drop my handicap to two or three,” she said. Her passion for the game and commitment will help her achieve her goal.
“I practice on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, and play in weekend tournaments. On my practice days, I get to Golf Park at about 10am and play until 4pm. Most days, I play 18 holes and then go to the range and practice my chipping and putting.”
Out of the rough
Former Kenya ladies champion Wafula, 22, started to play at the age of six. She joined Kenya’s national team at the age of 12.
“Golf helps you develop life skills like discipline, focus and patience,” she said.
“I play every day, at Golf Park. I get off work at 2.30pm and play until 6pm. Most days I start at the range and then hit the course.”
Wafula is currently playing off handicap three, but at her best, she was down to two.
“I’m highly motivated now, and I plan to turn professional before the end of 2020. I know that no human is limited.
“From my experience at Vipingo, I have learnt that if you believe in yourself, you can do anything. The professionals I played with are strong and motivated.”
Wafula played a birdie-less six over par 78 on Thursday, making it into the second round, but didn’t make the cut to go further.
For a few years, she found herself in the rough of life. But every golfer knows that you need to get back onto the fairway as fast as possible and get on with your game. Learn the lesson, and think about your next shot.
Her message to six-year-olds is: “Do your best.” She encourages parents to support their children as much as they can.
Catch them young
Speaking of young players, Marya Nguitigu, nine, is a rising star. She started playing at the age of five as a way to spend time with her father.
Her mother, Nelly Njoroge, is in the education field and noticed that she was a kinaesthetic learner, meaning that she learnt best through physical activity.
“When she began playing golf with her dad as a bonding activity, he noticed she could easily imitate how he was hitting the ball. He was impressed by her quick learning and therefore decided to get her a coach. He had heard about Rose Naliaka from the golfing circles, and he approached her.
“We selected Naliaka because she has been successful in Kenya and abroad. We felt that Marya would know that she too can make it as a girl, just like Naliaka or even better. She is not limited by gender.
“We also learnt that Naliaka is good with children, which was a big plus. We signed Marya up with Kenya’s Junior Golf Foundation, and we register her for the tournaments they organise every school holiday.”
Marya has played in six tournaments so far, at Karen Country Club and Thika Sports Club. She has played in the Non-Handicap category, and made it to the top three in all tournaments. Her parents hope she will get the opportunity to go to a school where she can take golf more seriously.
“Her trophies have a special place in our living room. We are so proud of her,” Njoroge says.
Family and community support is essential to help the young girls keep their eyes on the ball.
When Nigerian Georgia Iziemgbe Oboh, 18, played at Vipingo, her father carried her bag throughout the tournament. Oboh scored six over par 274 after four days of play. She plays in Lagos and the UK and started playing at the age of six.
Indian national Aditi Ashok, 21, came in second overall at Vipingo, with a score of seven-under-par 274. Her father also carried her bag for her.
“We support Marya by paying for her coaching lessons, buying her golf clothing and the required equipment.
“We do not put undue pressure on her to perform but cheer her on at every practice session. She is also a swimmer. We remind her that she is talented and will excel with continued practice. We also pray as a family,” Njoroge said.
Support needs to extend to finances as it is difficult to play professional golf part time.
Magical Kenya was the title sponsor and the presenting partner was Safaricom’s M-Pesa, with corporates KCB, Capital FM, Aquamist, East Africa Breweries, Turkish Airlines, Vipingo Development, Kenya Ports Authority and Wilken Kenya also supporting the event. If the sponsorship is extended to the lady golfers, Kenyan brands will be well represented.
Fun and games
Nyakio, 23, started playing at the age of 11. She now plays at VetLab Sports Club, off handicap five. Together with Nyanchama, she began playing when she was a student at Jamhuri Primary School.
“In the beginning, I played for fun, and as time went by I got more interested in the sport. Now I play three times a week, and in competitions over the weekend,” she said. A typical practice day involves getting to the course by 11am and either playing nine holes and going to the range or playing 18 holes.
Playing with professionals at the Ladies European Tour event showed her that if she puts in more effort, she’ll soon be at her best. She also learnt to concentrate on the game, and not let a bad shot affect her game.
Some of the challenges she faced at Vipingo were playing from the back tee, where the professionals start. “It was difficult because as amateurs, we usually play from the ladies’ tee, which is a few metres in front.”
Nyanchama, 23, also plays at VetLab Sports Club off handicap five.
“When coach Naliaka came to Jamhuri Primary School, she selected 30 girls. Four of us, her best junior players, went to Scotland in 2009, where we learnt about the history of golf. This trip was instrumental in getting me more interested in the game, and grew my love for travel,” she said.
“I play three times a week, Mondays Wednesdays and Fridays, on Saturday if there’s a competition. For practice, I’m on the range from 9am to 1pm, then I hit the course and play nine or 18 holes depending on the weather.
Golf needs focus and lots of practice. I plan to lower my handicap so that I can turn pro by 2021.”
Phyllis Kimbo, chair of the Kenya Ladies Golf Union says the game is thriving in the country.
She been playing for 10 years now and says she understands that many women may find it challenging to fit golf into their busy schedules.
“I knew that I would take up golf when I retired. It’s demanding when you have a full-time job, but it is still possible to find time to play. We are nurturing the young girls to take up the game through the Junior Golf Foundation.”
Kimbo added that they get support from the Kenyan government and Royal and Ancient (R & A), which develops women’s golf on the global stage.
In May 2018, the R & A launched a Women in Golf Charter, to increase women and girls’ participation and membership in golf, encourage more families to enjoy golf as a leisure activity and promote more opportunities for women to work in the golf industry.
“It is important for Kenyan women to come and play with these professionals and understand that they can do it just as well,” Kimbo said.
Tournament winner Henseleit concurs. “I think women’s golf in Kenya will grow a lot in the next few years. I can’t wait to come back next year to enjoy the great food and golf course.”
Well out, ladies, well out.