The 2001 European Challenge Tour gets underway in familiar surroundings this week when it makes its annual safari to Africa for the Tusker Kenya Open.
This year, the tournament in Nairobi forms the first leg of an African’ swing’ with the Stanbic Zambia Open being played next week in Lusaka.
This will be the 34th Kenya Open, the event having been inaugurated in 1967 at Muthaiga Golf Club when the late Guy Wolstenholme became the first champion. The following year the tournament moved to the Karen course, when Maurice Bembridge won, but it returned to Muthaiga in 1968, when Bembridge triumphed again, and has remained there since.
In its former years, the Kenya title formed a popular segment of the Safari Tour and an early season opportunity for many of Europe's leading players to get some much-needed action in the sunshine. Other titles have fallen by the wayside or been absorbed into the South African Sunshine Tour. But the Kenya Open continues to flourish thanks to Kenya Open Golf Limited, the members of the Muthaiga Club and the long-standing sponsorship of Kenya Breweries under its leading brand name of Tusker.
The tournament is now the regular starting point for the Challenge Tour and its roll of honour is littered with champions who are legends in European golf such as Seve Ballesteros, the winner in 1978, Brian Barnes (1981), Ian Woosnam (1986), and Christy O'Connor Jnr (1990).
This week's tournament contains four previous champions, Ulsterman David Jones (1989), Andre Bossert from Switzerland (1992), Welshman James Lee (1995) and Mike Miller from Scotland (1996), who will qualify for the European Seniors Tour in April.
However, history suggests that previous champions don't repeat their successes, only Bembridge and Dutchman Jan Dorrestein having chalked up multiple victories in the event and that was over 20 years ago.
But there is plenty of talent in the 156-strong field, which is one of the strongest for several years. Many have been playing in South Africa for the past few weeks and will arrive in Nairobi in good form. None more so than Bradford Vaughan, the 25 year old South African who won the Investec Royal Swazi Sun Open two weeks ago.
Vaughan was impressive as he carded a closing 64 for a 25 under par tally of 263 to win by a massive eight strokes from fellow Springbok Trevor Immelman and Mark Hilton, the former England international from Sussex.
A year ago, Immelman became the first South African to lift the Kenya title when he shot four sub 70 rounds, closing with 67, for 270, 14 under par, and a four stroke winning margin from Sweden's Henrik Stenson. Both players are now operating on the main Tour, having finished in the top 15 on last year's Challenge Tour.
Victory at Muthaiga will provide someone with a quick start to the season and an advantage towards securing his card at the end of the campaign.
There is a strong entry from South Africa, as there is from Europe, including six winners from the 2000 Challenge Tour - Swedes Paul Nilbrink and Eric Carlberg, Alvaro Salto from Spain, and the French trio of Renaud Guillard, Pascal Edmond and Richard Gillot.
Yorkshire's Simon Hurd, who narrowly missed securing his card from the Challenge Tour last year, is also entered as are several players who lost their main Tour playing privileges in October including Johan Skold from Sweden, England's Iain Pyman, twice a winner on the 1999 Challenge Tour, Massimo Florioli from Italy, and Ireland's Gary Murphy.
Overall the tournament has attracted an international field with players from 22 nations teeing off on Thursday. That includes 14 Kenyans, among them Jacob Okello, a member of the host club, who played a number of Challenge Tour events last year and who came close to giving Kenya its first victory in the event three years ago only to lose a play-off to Ricardo Gonzalez of Argentina.