With the closure of most open spaces, there is not much fun to be had right now, but golf is allowed. However, most golfers are spending weeks cooped up to avoid coronavirus while some are finding it hard to play on their own while carrying their golf bags on the course, in the new social distancing measures.
For a few golfers, the lovely fairways, trees and all, putting the ball without people around, is therapeutic.
Jessy Ndegwa, the vice-captain at Ruiru Sports Club, says playing golf has been a respite from the uncertainty of the world around him.
Three days in a week, he plays an 18-hole round of golf which takes about four hours. He joined the club in 2016 and has played consistently since then.
“Golf makes me feel like I have something to look forward to the next day. It is a distraction from the constant sad news of Covid-19. I am now playing more frequently than before the pandemic. My health has also improved,” he says.
With stricter measures, the rounds of golf have come with modifications. Players can only play in twos or threes and without caddies.
“Initially, playing without a caddie was very difficult because I had to carry my golf bag and then I had to spot my balls. But now I’ve gotten used to it. I even feel that I have become a better golfer. Walking and carrying the golf bag which weighs about 10 kilogrammes have helped in keeping fit,” says Jessy.
Playing golf, he adds, is a relatively safe activity. “Whether you are playing alone or in a group of three, there is no close interaction. I would rather be actively involved in playing golf and walking than staying at home worried. It is also good a cardiovascular exercise,” he says.
Because golf is an outdoor activity that also provides companionship for many people, Jessy says, he misses the 19th hole, a word golfers use for a pub, bar, or restaurant on or near the golf course, very often the clubhouse itself.
Golf courses are open but the bars and restaurants within the country clubs are closed, forcing golfers to carry their food or eat at home.
“The 19th hole is as much a part of golf as the 18th. There, you can discuss your round and the bartender knows your drink. It is sometimes larger than the golf itself. Hole 19 comes with drinks, tea, food, and socialising. You will settle down to talk to a group of people or friends who you play together. Of course, currently, it’s not possible,” he said.
Like any sport, golf is enjoyable in the right crowd. But Martin Karanja, another golfer, says even without the right crowd, he finds fun playing twice a week.
Nothing can make him feel more at ease than a nine-hole round on a weekday. On Saturdays, he completes the 18 holes.
“Even before Covid-19, I played golf to relax, unwind, and get the day’s pressure out of my system. It has become more relevant now given that someone is in one location for almost six to seven hours a day,” he says.
Martin started playing in 2014. What he misses most, is the limited socialising on the golf course, and the tournaments. He now plays with a friend or two, sometimes alone. Walking the course while carrying the golf bag has become a new norm. He walks about 12 kilometres to cover the 18-hole golf course.
The reduction of formal activities and events means that golf clubs are now straining financially and with few workers maintaining the courses at the right standards. So a golfer plays on overgrown grass, which increases the chances of losing a ball.
“I played a three-ball on Saturday and lost about 12 golf balls. The course is a bit tough now, but I blame my eyesight and the fact that we were highly dependent on the caddies. We now realise that caddies play a big role,” Martin says.
Kennedy Kamau, a caddie at Nyali Golf & Country Club, knew as Covid-19 hit the mainstream economy, it would quickly funnel down to the caddies.
The 28-year-old who started caddying in 2010 grew up on the golf course.
“I started going to the golf club when young because my father was a landscaper at the club. I developed my love for the game then and started caddying,” he says.
He says financial security lasts only as long as a caddie can work.
“When companies and businesses everywhere were closing that is when I realised the virus was going to affect my life. But we are lucky that the club has been feeding us. I pray that they do not tire. Everywhere is closed so it is hard to get other jobs. Each week we pick foodstuffs such as rice, beans, and flour. They also give us some money to cushion us during this period,” the father of two says.
Various golf clubs have been supporting the caddies through welfare funds. Nyali Golf and Country Club chairman Taib Bajaber, says that despite caddies not being at work, any member who wants to play pays half the normal caddies fee.
The money is given to the caddies who are selected on a rotational basis to fill in divots and repair pitch marks on the golf course.
At Limuru Country Club, the captain Fred Ikana says the club has also established a fund to support the caddies. Nakuru Golf Club is also giving food rations to the caddies and staff who are on unpaid leave.
At Nakuru Golf Club, players are asked to carry their balls and sanitisers.
“Now we have a few people who come to play, some come to walk around the course. You come prepared and leave immediately after the gameplay,” says Steve Kihumba, the Nakuru Golf Club chairman.
For golf courses in gated communities, they have locked out non-residents. At Baobab Course in Vipingo Ridge, only residents are allowed to play, said the golf director, Saleem Haji. They get extra money from paying for carts, and the cash is used to pay caddies.
“More golfers are playing with a cart. We have self-caddied games and increased use of the golf buggies. We have discounted the cart fees. The money that people pay for the cart goes to a caddies’ fund. The caddies are paid every Friday,” he said. One challenge is how long the clubs can afford to pay their maintenance staff and support caddies with little or no revenue coming in.
Green fees, memberships, food and beverage, pro shop sales, and corporate-sponsored events are among the sources of revenue for the clubs.
With most events canceled and clubhouses closed, revenue streams have taken a hit.
“Clubs earn money from competitions and restaurants. The members are also going to have a challenge paying subscription fees. We have maintained and retained most of our staff but there will be challenges if this pandemic goes on for long,” says Taib.