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Society

How golf became a children’s sport

Belinda Wanjiru
Belinda Wanjiru was recognised as the most promising young golfer at the SOYA Awards. PHOTO | COURTESY 

Belinda Wanjiru adjusts her cap, ready to take a shot. She stands with her club high up in the air and eyes on the ball, almost breathless. When the club swings down, it sends the ball flying high across the course at Gold Park, as she follows it, exhaling with delight.

Belinda, 10, represents the new generation of golfers that is now a common feature on golf courses across Kenya: teenagers and minors as young as eight years.

They sweat it off after school, on weekends and during holidays. They play golf for recreation and to compete in tournaments. Some have even won awards for their exploits in the green.

Kenyan parents are now investing in golf for their children, to instil discipline in them, to keep them away from misdemeanours, for fitness and as a way of creating useful networks for them.

Some schools even have incorporated golf into their programmes to promote the sport.

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While most of these children come from golfing families, some still hail from those without any golfing history. So, why is this a worthy investment?

Belinda Wanjiru, 10

Handicap: 22

Courses: Golf Park and others

Belinda’s tiny hands could barely hold a club when she swang it the first time. She was only three years. Her parents had visited a golf course when she insisted on performing the trick with the tee.

Thousands of swings later, going international at the age of seven, and her recent recognition at the Sports Personality of the Year Awards (Soya) gala as the most promising young golfer, Belinda’s star in golf twinkles brighter by the day.

She is the pioneer golfer in her family: none of parents plays golf. Yet when the Year Five pupil of Brookhouse School whips her balls around courses in Kenya, she does so with the swagger of someone whose lineage is defined by the sport.

“It’s talent and passion. She just loves the sport. She likes to watch especially Tiger Woods play. Hopefully she will get to play in the LPGA (Ladies Professional Golf Association) one day,” says Carol Muthoni, her mother.

Her nomination for the Soya awards came as a surprise to her family.

“We were surprised and proud that someone has been paying attention to her,” she says.

As part of her family’s investment in the sport, Carol manages her, ensuring that Belinda eats healthy, sleeps well and has enough rest. Her parents also take her to women’s golfing tournaments for exposure to pros. Multiple national champion Nicholas Rokoine is one of the pros who has mentored her.

“Golf is an expensive investment. You have to pay caddie fees for every session and other miscellaneous expenses such as travel. The golf set, which is very expensive, has to be replaced every year. The kit wears off even faster for children,” Carol says.

While she personally supervises her daughter, Carol allows her some leeway to make critical decisions for herself.

“Some parents caddie their children, but I don’t. I want to nurture independence in her as she matures into a teenager,” she says, adding, “I cater for everything and drop her to the course whenever she’s playing. After the match, I pick her. I play my part as her mother, the coaches play theirs and she does her part.”

With most courses in the country now admitting non-members at a small fee, Carol says one does not have to be a member of a club to play golf.

“My daughter is a member of Junior Golfer Foundation (JGF) which admits children below 21 years. We pay an annual membership fee of Sh1,000. With this membership, she can access any golf course in Kenya by paying an entry fee of Sh120 only. Most parents can afford this ,” she says.

On returns on this investment, Carol says her daughter has benefited in all facets of life.

“Her time management skills are also on point. You lose some strokes when you arrive late on the course. She’s also very well-behaved thanks to the sport,” Carol notes.

The competitive nature of the sport has made Belinda self-aware and aggressive on and off the course.

“It has helped her to do well in school in all areas. Belinda is in the school’s hockey team and is a good singer too. She’s an ‘‘A’’ learner and does particularly well in mathematics and sciences,” Carol adds.

So far, Belinda has participated in multiple junior tournaments in Kenya and has competed in Malaysia, Scotland, in South Africa and in the US.

Competing with junior golfers in the US though was tough for Belinda, her mother says. Even so, she came second in one of the junior contests.

“In the US, some minors are homeschooled and spend a significant amount of their time training on the courses. This makes them tough opponents to play.”

Her golfing future may be alight, except her mother chooses to keep options open.

“Our priority right now is her academics. If she chooses to go pro, that’s her call to make. Ours is to ensure that she has a solid professional background in addition to her talent,”Carol says.

With the Soya award already in the hole, Belinda now eyes more exploits this year.

“We hope 2020 will be a better year for her, to build her grit and to have more interactions,” she says.

Dennis Gakuo, 17

Handicap: 7

Course: Thika Sports Club

Dennis Gakuo

Dennis Gakuo is a young golfer who practices at Thika Green Golf Club. PHOTO | COURTESY

Dennis completed his Form Four studies at Queen of Apostles Seminary last year, where he score a B. He is hoping to join university later this year to study environmental science.

Dennis first hit a ball at six years, then a Standard One Pupil. Having played for 11 years now, he is at his best level now, with a minimum of three sessions every week. He is also a regular at tournaments organised by his club and others.

Golf runs in the family bloodline, with his father, mother and members of his extended family heavily involved in the sport.

The family plays weekly at various clubs in the country. Introducing Dennis to the sport was, therefore, a way of passing down the family’s lifestyle.

“I have played golf for more than 25 years,” his father Patrick says.

“I noticed his interest in the sport when he was only a toddler. I thought: why not nurture this interest and see here it takes us?’’

Today, Dennis is giving his dad a run for his money.

“He’s grown taller and stronger. He swings the club with more power and can hit the ball farther than me,” Patrick says with pride.

“Raising children in this time is difficult for any parent. There are many perils such as drugs to addiction to smartphones. Playing golf means he has minimal idle time. This distracts him from harmful behaviour. He is a disciplined young man,” he adds.

In terms of values, Dennis has a strong work ethic, industry and consistency, all thanks to golf. He is also healthier, owing to the many physically and mentally exerting hours spent on the course every week.

“Playing golf has improved his concentration on different tasks and he makes decisions swiftly,” Patrick adds.

Having been in boarding school throughout, balancing between books, golf and other activities has been his biggest setback.

“With more time spent in school, his playing time was affected. He only got to go to the course during holidays. That’s an average of three months in a year,” he says.

Patrick laments that the system’s heavy emphasis on academics undercut his son’s participation in golf, but hopes that he will have more time to play when he joins university.

Time and psychological support has been the biggest investment in the sport for Dennis.

“He plays for five days in a week, which means we have to pay entry fees and also caddie fees, which is about Sh5,000 every week. Sometimes it’s more,” he says.

On why this is an important investment, Patrick says the family is banking on Dennis to go pro and to even represent the country.

“He loves the sport and plays from his heart. His zeal is admirable. He demands more playing time without being coerced. He wants to become a professional golfer. As a family, we’re confident that one day his passion will pay off,” Patrick says.

Golf is, arguably, an exclusive sport. Has this affected how he interacts with other people? Not at all, Patrick says.

“He spends most of his time on the course but he still has good friends, both on course and off the course. His social skills are good,” he adds.

In readiness for a possible career in golfing, Dennis clocks hours on the course every day, practicing to build energy and gain resilience.

“Finishing his studies has freed up his time. He now has more play time. By the time he joins university later this year, he’ll have had the longest uninterrupted play time,” Patrick says.

Anne Mutua, 12

Handicap: unhandicapped

Course: Muthaiga Sports Club

Anne Mutua is a junior golfer at Muthaiga Golf Club

Anne Mutua is a junior golfer at Muthaiga Golf Club. PHOTO | COURTESY

Anne is a pupil at Moi Primary School in Thika and plays in the 9-hole junior category. She has competed in multiple tournaments and is an active participant in golf clinics and a member of her school’s team.

Her father, Patrick Gakuo, says that the family introduced her to the sport at three years. From the moment she held the club, she has never looked back.

“Through the rigour of golf, Anne now understands that to be a good golfer and to win a competition one must work hard and be passionate about what they do. These values have helped her not only in the sport but in other areas of life as well,” Gakuo says.

Anne has fairly balanced golf with academics, despite the overload, to even participates in other extra-curricular activities such as music, poetry and drama. Her performance in school has constantly been impressive.

“We spend an average of Sh10,000 each holiday on her entry fees, caddie fees and coaching. Her second-hand golf set cost Sh28,000,” her father says.

Does Gakuo think this is an important investment?

“In many ways. She has been heavily involved in the sport and created a strong foundation. If she chose to adopt golf as a fulltime career, she would have all our blessings,” says Gakuo.

Anne has not said whether she wants to go pro in golf or not. Her parents though are not in a hurry.

“We want her to grow older and be able to make her own decisions. For now, we’ll keep supporting her in all ways as she plays as a junior golfer,” he says.

Brian Omondi, 18

Handicap: 2

Courses: Thika Greens, Thika Sports Club

Brian Omondi plays at Thika

Brian Omondi plays at Thika. He started playing golf aged only five. PHOTO | COURTESY

Brian just finished his A levels at Braeburn Imani International School, and will join Queensland University in Australia later this month.

His father, Tom Omondi, also a golfer for more than 15 years, says his son started playing golf aged only five, and has since participated in many tournaments, including junior golf championship. He is a member of the Kenya junior golf team.

“I introduced him to golf to instil discipline and time consciousness in him,” Tom says, adding, “I felt golf would expose him to many people from diverse backgrounds for his growth in all areas of life. It was also a way to help him to keep fit as he grew up.”

Tom, a floriculturalist, says that his son’s association with these professionals has helped him to settle on his future career in chemical engineering. Like other young golfers, Brian has acquired organisational skills, discipline and honesty from the sport.

“I’ve never seen him bored. Sometimes he spends the whole day on the course. He’s also able to focus more, especially on his books.”

Other than golf, Brian actively plays basketball, hockey and football. He’s also a good swimmer.

“My hope is that studying in Australia will help him to grow his sport and possibly attain professional status by taking part in college golf in his new university,” he says.

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