With the Barclays Kenya Open forming part of the European Challenge Tour schedule for the 25th time this year, we’re taking a look back at some of the notable performers in Nairobi since our first visit there in 1991.
By the time the tournament joined the Challenge Tour its roll of honour already included Major Champions Seve Ballesteros and Ian Woosnam, and in 2000 another name was added to the trophy who would go on to lift one of golf’s greatest prizes: Trevor Immelman.
‘I remember it very clearly’
The South African was just 20 years old when he arrived in Kenya 17 years ago for what was his first ever appearance on the Challenge Tour after he turned professional in 1999 – having already played in the Masters Tournament for the first time by virtue of winning the 1998 U.S. Amateur Public Links.
Preparation was key for Immelman as he spent a full week at Muthaiga Golf Club beforehand honing exactly the skills he would need for the four rounds of the Tusker Kenya Open.
“I remember it very clearly,” he said. “Four of us South Africans flew over together – Jean Hugo was part of that, Donald Gammon and Warrick Druian.
“We travelled together, stayed together, played all of our practice rounds, and we got there early – we were probably there for nine days and had a fun week.”
‘Shucks! If I remember correctly Henrik Stenson finished second’
Immelman started solidly, a four under par 67 putting him just two shots off the early pace, and a 69 in the second round put him in a tie for fourth place, still two shots behind a man who has since become one of world golf’s leading figures: Henrik Stenson.
The Swede had narrowly missed out on his European Tour card in 1999 both through the Challenge Tour Rankings and then at Qualifying School but was showing clear intent to make up for it in the Kenyan sunshine.
Immelman closed the gap on Moving Day, joining Stenson at the top of the leaderboard along with Mattias Damberg and setting up a thrilling final day shoot-out, with the South African’s nerveless closing 67 proving too good and earning him a maiden professional win by four shots.
“Shucks, if I remember correctly Henrik Stenson finished second,” he said. “The two of us were only about 20 years old, coming down the stretch, trying to win our first tournaments and it was a lot of fun. We actually went from there to the Indian Open and played there the week after.”
Stenson would recover from this disappointment to top the Challenge Tour Rankings at the end of the year and has since won The Open Championship, two Race to Dubai titles, the World Cup of Golf and two Ryder Cups, along with myriad other trophies in his cabinet.
‘The Challenge Tour was a great springboard for me’
Immelman also graduated at the end of the season, finishing tenth in the Rankings to earn a European Tour card for 2001.
Three European Tour wins followed, including back-to-back South African Airways Open victories in 2003 and 2004, before in 2008 he became only the second Challenge Tour alumnus to win a Major when he donned the iconic Green Jacket after a three-shot Masters victory ahead of runner-up Tiger Woods.
Though a litany of injuries have plagued Immelman’s professional career, there is little doubt that he has exceeded even the wildest expectations of anyone who was lucky enough to see him go head-to-head with Stenson down the stretch in Kenya 17 years ago, and he fully acknowledges the role the Challenge Tour played in developing his career.
“It was an exciting time in my lifetime and career,” he said. “I was a young 20 year old, just starting in the professional ranks and trying to find my feet so it was huge to get that first win under my belt.
“With it being a Challenge Tour event, that win propelled me to earning my European Tour card at the end of that year in 2000.“The Challenge Tour was a great springboard for me, starting with that win – it was a great week for me and definitely helped get me on the European Tour for the next year.”