It was in the year 1906 that the idea for what is now Kenya’s most venerable course, the Royal Nairobi Golf Course, was conceived. It had a chaotic start in life: originally mistakenly located in a swamp, it was then relocated to an area so far from the centre of Nairobi that members complained that by the time they had cycled to it they were too tired to hit a ball. The next site was infested by lions. Eventually the slopes of Nairobi hill were selected. However, because this land belonged to the Kenyan army, which was then known as the Kings African Rifles, it was decreed that play should be reserved for the recreational use of the officers. The ruling was ignored by everyone; including the great herds of zebras, eland, antelopes and giraffes that were partial to grazing on its lush green grass.
At this time Nairobi was little more than a shantytown: a desperate collection of ragged tents and rusty shacks grimly collected at the head of the newly arrived railway line. Known as the ‘Lunatic Express’ (because nobody was entirely sure why it had been built), this triumph of engineering had brought the railway up from Mombasa: and where it ended: Nairobi began. It was blessed with few buildings, no roads, no sewers and monstrous clouds of mosquitoes. And the game was so prolific that you could shoot your supper from your tent. Or meet your own end. The graveyard was full of simple wooden crosses reading ‘killed by lions’. No wonder, then, that construction of Nairobi’s first course was beset by buffalos, or that a leopard was shot on it in 1919 (whether in self defense or because it had got in the way of a shot is not recorded).
Thereafter, golf courses sprang into life all over Kenya. Most still exist and they’re as eclectic a selection as you’ll find anywhere on earth. Some rise from rolling hills green-quilted with tea, others float amid a sea of coffee plantations. Some lie on the shores of flamingo-fringed lakes, others cling to the flanks of dormant volcanoes. One, the now famous Sigona Golf Course, was built around an elephant watering hole. Another, built on the shores of the vast soda lake known as Magadi, is probably the hottest course on earth. The title of Africa’s only uphill course, however, goes to that built on the flanks of the massive extinct volcano known as Menengai. To the rest of the world, however, Kenya remained stubbornly un-golf-worthy – a place only of safaris, sun and sand. »
Everything changed in 2009 when Kenya was voted the ‘Undiscovered Golf Destination of the Year’ by the International Golf Travel Writers Association. Fame spread as to the 42 charmingly diverse courses, and now everyone wanted to tee off from under the nose of a hippopotamus (Kenya’s golfing rules allow you to take a second shot if interrupted by a hippopotamus).
A year later, Kenya had been hailed as the ‘awakening giant’ of international golf tourism, and the concept of the golfing safari was born. A cavalcade of internationally acclaimed golf course designers arrived to install a number of truly revolutionary courses and, in their wake, came all the big names of golf. The Muthaiga Golf Club hosted the Masters Champions, Seve Ballesteros (1978), Ian Woosnam (1986) and Trevor Immelman (2000); while in 1969 Karen Country club served as the venue for a triangular match between Roberto de Vicenzo, Bert Yancey and Tony Jacklin. Kenya had scored a hole in one.
Since that time, a number of spectacular new championship courses have been built, ‘up country’ and on the coast and many of the original courses have been remodeled to bring them up to global standards. No courses in the world, however, can rival those of Kenya for their utterly spectacular scenery, their riots of flowering shrubs and their seemingly endless skies. Nor is it all about the visuals. Kenya enjoys a superb climate and, because she straddles the equator, there’s daylight from 6am to 6pm year-round. Golf aside, Kenya promises off-the-green adventure in 56 national parks and a variety of scenery that veers from Indian Ocean coast to the ice-capped spires of Mount Kenya.
The Kenyan clubs are also famous for the fact that they reciprocate with clubs all of the world, for their easy welcome, relaxed play, excellent clubhouses and the reasonable nature of their fees. There’s also the undeniable fact that golf widows are much more amenable to being abandoned in a land where there is such a wealth of activity, action and amazement.
Kenya scores the ultimate birdie, however, with the proficiency of her caddies, many of whom are professionals in their own right. Economic to hire, they’re generous with their advice and wry of humour. One golfer, amazed by the arrival of a blue-rumped monkey to ruin his put asked of his caddy, ‘what’s that monkey called?’ ‘It’s a monkey,’ replied the caddy, ‘it doesn’t have a name.’