Travel

Magic of Kenya’s Award-winning Golf Courses

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Ariel shots of Muthaiga Golf Course. For one time use only. PHOTO | POOL

Summary

  • Kenya has cemented her position as a top golfing destination in Africa, boasting over 40 world-class courses and a growing local and international fan base
  • When a handful of golfers teed off during the inaugural Kenya Open Golf tournament at Muthaiga Golf Club in 1967, this marked the genesis of golf tourism in Kenya.
  • Kenya’s first golf club, Royal Nairobi Golf Club, had opened its doors 61 years earlier in 1906. But for many years, golf in the country was a sport for the elite, played at exclusive courses.

Kenya has cemented her position as a top golfing destination in Africa, boasting over 40 world-class courses and a growing local and international fan base

When a handful of golfers teed off during the inaugural Kenya Open Golf tournament at Muthaiga Golf Club in 1967, this marked the genesis of golf tourism in Kenya.

Kenya’s first golf club, Royal Nairobi Golf Club, had opened its doors 61 years earlier in 1906. But for many years, golf in the country was a sport for the elite, played at exclusive courses.

Fifty-three years and millions of tees later, Kenya has established itself as a regional and continental golfing powerhouse. Local and international athletes swing away for leisure and the prize money in Kenya’s world-class courses during tourneys all year long.

That World Golf Awards named Kenya Africa’s Best Golf Destination in 2020 last month may not have come as a surprise to golf insiders. This recognition came on the back of multi-million-shilling investment in the sport, aggressive marketing, and near-flawless management.

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On the way to winning the prestigious awards — sponsored by golf-ware manufacturer Druh Belts & Buckles, Etihad Airways, and Golf Saudi — Kenya beat Morocco, Egypt, and South Africa, considered the cream of Africa in golfing.

Inclusive

The era of golf as an elite sport is gone. Enter pocket-friendly packages for all. To respond to golf’s popularity across different demographics, clubs such as Migaa Golf Estate in Kiambu County have introduced packages that target Kenya’s middle class from a diversity of racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Today, golf tourism is one of the country’s top-selling points internationally, according to Magical Kenya, the country’s travel marketplace.

For travellers on safari in Kenya, golf offers a deserved break from the breathtaking and often exerting excursions in Kenya’s wild.

With the country’s fair weather ideal for golfing throughout the year, golfers, professionals, and amateurs alike, travel from Europe, the Far East, Middle East, and other African countries to play here, making the tournaments highly competitive.

This surging demand for golf tourism has also given rise to a new business frontier: golf travel bouquets. Lordstown Travel Group is one such business.

Josephine Kuria, the founder, had been in the travel industry for 15 years when she started the company in 2018. ‘‘I wanted to do something unique and traditional travel wasn’t for me. I wanted to establish a niche within tourism that was more appealing,’’ Josephine narrates.

Coming at a time golf tourism has been gaining traction in Kenya, organising golf travels was, therefore, a no-brainer for her. ‘‘Many tourists today know what they want. They demand memorable and classic experiences beyond simply watching wildlife. Some want to play golf while others want to visit farms for coffee and tea tasting,’’ She notes.

Golf Safaris

A member of the Global Golf Tourism Organisation (IAGTO), Lordstown Travels offers seven-day packages for tourists that include four days of golfing at Nairobi’s various courses while staying at the city’s top hotels.

Travellers also get to visit attraction sites such as David Sheldrick Elephants Orphanage and Giraffe Centre.

‘‘When tourists are visiting Maasai Mara, for instance, we identify nearby courses in Kisumu or Rift Valley where they can play. This makes it convenient to experience wildlife and to play golf,’’ Josephine explains.

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Combining golf and safari, she argues, is a win-win for both the country’s tourism sector and for visitors who get to see and do more during their stay.

Josephine’s clients mostly come from European countries such as Germany, the UK, France, and Ireland. From Asia, Malaysians, Chinese, Japanese, Thais, and Indonesians visit Kenya for golf. Last year, the company hosted 35 visitors from Israel.

With tourists in the upwards of 500 annually, Lordstown Travel was named Kenya’s Best Inbound Golf Tour Operator this year during this year’s World Golf Awards. At roughly $1,500 (Sh163,000), travellers are provided with accommodation, all transfers, and course fees during their stay.

When Kenya was recognised as Africa’s top golf destination, for Josephine, this meant only one thing: increased fortunes.

‘‘We’re excited because this ranking is going to raise the profile of our country as a golf destination. More international golfers would like to come here, which means more business for us as a travel group,’’ she projects.

Additionally, the company organises travels for Kenyan golfers, with Thailand, Mauritius, and Japan among the most preferred golfing destinations.

High rewards

Kenya’s golf calendar is routinely compact, thanks to major tournaments and several other smaller golf championships organised by different sponsors across the country. With competitions all year round, golfers can barely hoist their clubs on their shoulders.

In turn, Kenya has a reputation for attracting top golfing talent from around the world. Europe’s Ryder Cup players including Seve Ballesteros, Ian Woosnam and Karen Brown, for instance, are some of the athletes who have taken part in and even won, the Magical Kenya Open.

Italy’s Guido Migliozzi, a two-time European Tour champion, is the current champion. Ahead of his triumph on Kenyan soil, Migliozzi had won the Belgian Knockout.

But if the appeal of Kenya’s golf tournaments is irresistible, it’s wonderfully manicured courses that are a marvel. Migaa Golf Estate, Windsor, Karen Golf and Country Club, Royal Nairobi Golf Club, Leisure Lodge, Nyali Golf Club and Sigona boast international standards.

Landscaping in some of these courses was done by professional course architects such as Zimbabwe’s celebrity designer Peter Matkovich (he did Muthaiga Golf Club course).

Magical Kenya Open, played alternately between Karen Country Club and Muthaiga Golf Club for the last half a century is Kenya’s most popular golf tournament, drawing athletes from as far as Latin America.

In its 50-year history, the tournament, currently with 1.1 million Euros (Sh141 million) worth of prize money, has been dominated by the English, Irish, South Africans, and Italians. Interestingly, no Kenyan has ever won the tournament.

Its women’s equivalent, Magical Kenya Ladies Open, played at Vipingo Ridge since 2019, is a professional tournament on the Ladies European Tour.

KCB Karen Masters is Kenya’s other golf travel attraction. It was held at Karen Golf and Country Club in 2017 and sponsored by Kenya Commercial Bank (KCB). The tournament, with a prize fund of R2.2 million (Sh15 million), in 2018 became a member of the Sunshine Tour.

This men’s professional golf series includes Kenya and six southern African countries among them South Africa, Namibia and Mauritius.

At 42, Kenya has the continent’s second-highest number of golf courses after South Africa. These stunning facilities mark the country’s landscape from the coastal belt to the highlands of Rift Valley and Mount Kenya and Nairobi.

Corporate sponsorship

At the heart of Kenya’s successful golf tournaments is corporate sponsorship. Nation Media Group, KCB, Absa Group, Kenya Breweries Limited, and Hemingways Hotel have funded tournaments, boosting their attractiveness and quality.

Last year, Absa was among the official promoters of Magical Kenya Open, sponsoring six pros and an amateur during the four-day tournament in March.

Kenya Breweries Limited was also a partner at the tourney, with sponsorship worth Sh40 million. Additionally, courtesy of its signature whiskey brand Johnnie Walker, the company paid out Sh3.2 million to top-tier golfers in Kenya during the 2019/2020 season of the Safari Golf Tour series.

“The journey towards the promotion of the tournament (Magical Kenya Open) to the European Tour has been made possible by the support of our sponsors over the years,’’ Peter Kanyago, the chairman of Kenya Open Golf, said last year of the sponsors’ role in promoting golf in the country.

Meanwhile, the government has actively promoted the development of golf in Kenya, through sponsorships by the ministries of Tourism (Kenya Tourism Board) and Sports and Heritage.

In 2019, President Uhuru Kenyatta pledged to increase the prize money of Magical Kenya Open from Sh126 million to Sh253 million. This would, consequently, see more golfers, especially international pros, participate in Kenya’s oldest golf tournament.

Besides their money, the participation of reputable brands in organising these championships raises their profile, drawing players, thousands of fans and wide media coverage.

As travellers demand more, corporate sponsorships increase and travel companies develop packages, golf (and sports) tourism can only continue to grow to world-class levels, rivalling Kenya’s traditional competitors.

Consequently, Kenya’s tour basket becomes more diverse, as the country gains from a segment that has largely remained untapped for decades.

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