A sport that was dominated by whites during pre-colonial years now attracts several local golfers with burgeoning fan base
By Ben Oduor
Many people may be familiar with golf in Kenya. But their memories cannot stretch further to the number of years Royal Nairobi Golf Club has taken developing the sport in the country.
The East African country traces her interest in the sport to early 19th century. Then, African countries were busy wrestling for freedom from the colonial muscle. The countries had not mastered foreign cultures and there was little time for leisure.
However, ancient European settlers gave order that each of their communities needed to have a church, club and a golf course to satisfy their social needs at the quarters.
And as the settlers strategised to adhere to the orders, one group along Ngong areas pulled a first – it started a members club, paving way for the establishment of Nairobi Golf Club, Kenya’s first golf club, in 1906.
It was a large nine-hole golf course, stretching down from the modern Ngong road to Wilson Airport. Under its first captain Arthur C. Tannahill, the club attracted many avid golfers and registered members, most of who would travel distances by train to participate in the tournaments.
Four years later, two more clubs were opened, the now defunct Meru Club and the Nyeri Club- in 1910. Mombasa golf club opened a year later in 1911.
Being the oldest to introduce the sport in Kenya, Nairobi Golf Club was bestowed a Royal charter on 15th July 1936 by the Keeper of the Privy Purse, the treasurer or financial secretary to the king or queen in U.K., a move that booked its place among world’s Royal chartered clubs and changed its name to Royal Nairobi Golf Club (RNGC), giving it a mark of royalty.
Charles Omondi, the club’s current captain and a banker at Commercial Bank of Africa says it was time to cast away the notion that golf was a rich man’s sport, market it to locals and embrace the game with enthusiasm.
“Serious efforts have since given golf a big name locally and internationally. The sport now has huge following and attracts interests all over the country. Golf clubs have also increased, showing signs of a sport gaining traction,” he says.
111 years later, Kenya prides of 40 golf courses spread across the beautiful coastal sceneries, to the spectacular Great Rift Valley, along the highlands and within the greenery tea estates, making it second most populous African country with golf courses after South Africa, Kenya Golf Guide reveals.
RNGC now hosts one of the most coveted tournaments in the country; The Tannahill Shield, an amateur tournament introduced in 1924 in cognizance of exemplary stewardship of the club’s pioneer captain Arthur C. Tannahill.
Tannahill Shield tournament
Popularly known as the Easter tournament, the event is played during the Easter holidays by ‘some of the finest golfers selected from their respective clubs’, with the criteria being the lowest handicap members.
The competition attracts members from nine clubs of Karen, Railways, Muthaiga, Sigona, Limuru, among other four, including the affiliate Mombasa golf club into a tournament that relegates the last club.
“The last club disqualifies from the next round of Easter competitions. But this doesn’t affect Royal Nairobi or our affiliate Mombasa Golf Club as we’re the organizers and hosts of the tournament,” says the captain.
“We’re glad to have always won the shield (in more than 20 tournaments). Muthaiga won the shield from us last Easter but we’re determined to win it back. Railways club was relegated during that competition.”
Besides the Easter competition are weekly tournaments on Thursdays, coined club nights, and Saturdays, where winners are awarded gifts by various sponsoring companies.
A typical golf day at RNGC, Omondi explains, starts in the afternoon. The captain lists names of participants who’d reserved interests to play in the day’s tournaments and pins it at a central notice-board.
Players then meet their caddies for warm up- in greens initially leveled and correctly mapped- before official tee time. Thenceforth, golfers are paired either in twos, threes or by stipulated club rules and tournament rounds begin under initial specified time allocations.
Winners in various handicap levels are then awarded in a congregant of players, members and sponsors of the day’s tournament.
“These sessions are very interactive and can sink into midnight,” the captain says, “here, overall winners and record breakers are accorded few ‘minutes of fame’ to share experiences with fellow players while receiving awards.”
Overtime, RNGC has grown its members to 1200. To be eligible for golf membership, the captain says, a registration fee of Sh500,000 is paid, as well as sh60,000 annual subscriptions.
“One also has to be of exemplary social standing; embrace integrity, sincerity and discipline. These virtues ensure that members are able to adhere to the set regulations, accord respect to other members and uphold the club’s repute,” Omondi says.
However, non-golfers (generally referred as social members) are also registered at subsidized rates to enjoy the club’s conference, swimming, gaming and dining facilities.
The restaurant provides catering to a range of meals from local cuisines to Indian dishes; there’s also a bar with an array of alcoholic drinks to choose from. Avid swimmers can also enjoy services at the club’s swimming pool, which invites both members and non-members (who must be signed by registered members).
There’s also an option of holding corporate, private or wedding functions at our Bowling Green area, the captain says.
His main interest for golf, however, is its unifying factor.
“It doesn’t matter the position you hold. Once a registered member, we’re all equals in the greens,” Omondi asserts of the sport that has attracted key faces such as former Kenya’s president Mwai Kibaki, seasoned politician Martha Karua and current chairman of polls body Wafula Chebukati, who doubles up as the club’s committee member.