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.
The tournament had been a long-running fixture since the 1960s before it joined the Challenge Tour, with a roll of honour including golfing greats Seve Ballesteros and Ian Woosnam, and it was Englishman Jeremy Robinson who added his name to the list at Muthaiga Golf Club in its inaugural staging on our tour.
‘I had 36 holes of being hunted down by everyone else’
Robinson turned 25 years old on the Monday of tournament week in Kenya in 1991 as the Challenge Tour, only named as such the previous year, entered its third full season under its current guise.
Back then the Kenya Open was the fifth event of the season, the finale of a five-tournament African swing, and Robinson celebrated his birthday in style, with a three-shot victory that set him on the path to European Tour graduation by finishing fifth in the Rankings come the end of the year.
“I remember I shot 62 I think in the second round,” he said. “I birdied the last four holes I think – 62 was nine under and I was five under after 14 and playing well, then all of a sudden I birdied the last four holes and ended up nine under. That meant I had 36 holes of being hunted down by everyone else.
“Steve Richardson was something like one behind me playing 17 in the last round, a short par three, and put it in the greenside bunker and knifed it out of bounds from the sand, fortunately for me.
“It made life a bit easier after that and I think I won by three in the end – the last hole was a par five and I think I nudged a four or five iron off the tee to play it ultra-safe!”
‘There was something about Africa that brought the best out of me’
A year later, now in possession of a European Tour card, Robinson was back in Africa with the Challenge Tour as part of his pre-season preparation and teed it up for practice at the 1992 Zambia Open – and won it.
“When the Kenya Open was part of the Safari Tour, a lot of big players used to play it,” he said. “It was five events you’d go down there for – Zimbabwe, Zambia, Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Kenya. In those days it was quite a good tour.
“The year after I won the Kenya Open, I’d got my European Tour card for that season, but I went down again to the Zambia Open as a warm up because in those days that was before the European Tour season started.
“I ended up winning it, so maybe there was something about Africa that brought the best out of me.”
‘If you’ve been to Kenya before it gives you a distinct advantage’
This year’s Barclays Kenya Open returns to Muthaiga Golf Club, the scene of Robinson’s triumph, after a number of years at neighbouring Karen Country Club.
Robinson had performed well around Muthaiga before his victory and he thinks that anyone who has played in Kenya before will benefit from that experience when the Road to Oman starts in Nairobi in a few weeks’ time.
“I played the Kenya Open the year before or a couple of years before when it was on the Safari Tour because I remember shooting 64 round there in the last round,” he said. “I obviously quite liked the course because then I had the 62 as well, on the way to victory.
“Muthaiga is a narrow course – I think they’ve changed a few of the holes but I remember that being the overriding factor, it being narrow. You had to drive the ball straight because the rough was pretty thick and it wasn’t a long course, even in those days. Hit the ball straight, get used to the grain on the greens, the different grasses, and it’s more of a thinker’s course, unlike a lot of the courses today that favour longer hitters.
“If you haven’t been to Kenya before, if you haven’t played in the heat, if you’ve just been in the UK or in Europe during the winter, it can be hard. The grasses are a lot different, the grain on the greens, so all of that, if you’re not used to it, can make it hard to go and do well in the first event.
“I’m sure people have done it, but if you’ve been to Kenya before I think it gives you a distinct advantage over someone going for the first time.”
‘The Challenge Tour is by far the best route onto the European Tour’
Robinson is still involved with the Challenge Tour as promoter of the Bridgestone Challenge and as such is well positioned to assess how well the tour has raised its standards in the 26 years since his Kenyan success.
“The Challenge Tour is obviously a lot more professional now compared with when I was playing on it,” he said. “There were only five cards available when it first started, so the top five on the Order of Merit went through, whereas now it’s 15.
“It was obviously a big thing when it just started to have those European Tour cards available because before that it was only through Qualifying School, so it was a fundamental change.
“It’s by far the best route onto the European Tour and the best way to secure the best playing opportunities for the next season, no doubt about it.
“You’re also getting used to travelling, playing four round events, playing every week, so for the young guys in particular it’s definitely a great training ground. Q-School is just a three event shoot-out, whereas the Challenge Tour you can progress over the whole year, and in theory that should mean that the best 15 guys graduate.”