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.
Ten years ago, a young Italian was quietly making a name for himself on the Challenge Tour. Edoardo Molinari had already won the Club Colombia Masters in February before teeing it up one month later in the 2007 Tusker Kenya Open.
A second victory duly followed at Karen Country Club, signalling the growing potential of the then-26 year old – who has since, of course, gone on to enjoy great success on golf’s biggest stages, including playing a part in Europe’s Ryder Cup victory in 2010.
‘I had some trees in front of me but I hit it to two feet and made a birdie’
Molinari started the 2007 season in rare form, winning in Colombia in what was his first Challenge Tour event since competing on home soil as an amateur in 2000.
The Italian followed up his maiden Challenge Tour victory with a tie for seventh in Costa Rica the following week, and he took his red hot form to East Africa, carding three rounds in the 60s to head into the final day with a three-shot lead, before early wobbles threatened to derail his charge.
That lead had turned into a one-shot deficit by the turn as James Kamte took control of the tournament with nine holes to play, but Molinari showed the performance under pressure that won him the 2005 US Amateur Championship, bouncing back with birdies on holes 11 and 13.
His slender advantage was soon in doubt as a wayward tee shot on 17 put him in deep trouble. The recovery, though, was worthy of winning any tournament, a miraculous nine iron around the trees giving him a tap-in birdie from two feet and making the walk up the last slightly more relaxed as a par five was good enough for a memorable win.
“I remember going into the back nine I think there were three or four of us tied for the lead,” he said. “I remember I had a good back nine, I had a couple of birdies early on, and then I still remember the 17th.
“I hit my tee shot a little bit left and had some trees in front of me, but from there I hit it to two feet and made a birdie and I think that gave me a two-shot lead going down the last.
“I hit a three wood and a rescue onto the final green and then three-putted for par, but that was good enough for the win and I was obviously very happy.”
‘I was right at the start of my professional career – it definitely helped me a lot going forward’
Largely thanks to those early-season wins, Molinari graduated to the European Tour through the Challenge Tour Rankings come the end of the year but struggled in 2008 and found himself back on the Challenge Tour in 2009.
However, buoyed by the knowledge of his victories two years previously, Molinari put together one of the most dominant seasons in Challenge Tour history, winning three times and racking up five further top three finishes to top the Rankings with a then-record total of €242,980 for the year.
“The experiences in 2007 absolutely stood me in good stead,” he said. “Any time you win a golf tournament it is great for your confidence, and to win it early on – Kenya was my second win in four or five Challenge Tour events, and I was right at the start of my professional career – it definitely helped me a lot going forward.
“Knowing you can win out there, and knowing a lot of the courses, definitely helped me in 2009. Part of the reason I played so well that year was because of 2007, and because I knew I could beat most of the guys if I was playing well, and that’s what happened.”
‘I really enjoyed going to Kenya, I have great memories’
The start of that seminal season in 2009 saw Molinari back in both Colombia and Kenya, and once again contending for titles.
He was runner-up in the Club Colombia Masters presentado por Samsung before flying to Nairobi, where he could not quite match his final round heroics as he settled for a top 15 finish, this time around Muthaiga Golf Club – which hosts this year’s Barclays Kenya Open for the first time since 2012.
“Kenya was great,” he said. “I played two times, once at Karen, where I won, and the other time at Muthaiga. They were both really good courses I remember, and the weather was always great because it was played in March, same as now. I really enjoyed going there and I have great memories.”
‘It’s a great learning experience and something that is very useful’
Within a year of topping the Rankings in 2009, Molinari had hit the highest of golfing stages, with victories at the Barclays Scottish Open and the Johnnie Walker Championship at Gleneagles, along with five further top tens, convincing European captain Colin Montgomerie to pick him as a wildcard for The Ryder Cup.
Edoardo memorably partnered his brother Francesco during that wet week at Celtic Manor Resort as Europe narrowly regained the trophy, with Edoardo’s late half-point from his singles match against Rickie Fowler ultimately proving to be crucial to the team’s victory.
Now at the start of his eighth consecutive season in the Race to Dubai, Molinari still acknowledges the crucial role the two seasons he spent on the Challenge Tour played in developing his game.
“The Challenge Tour helped me a lot,” he said. “It teaches you many things, it teaches you to play a full season out here – whether it’s European Tour or Challenge Tour you still have to do the same things, the Pro-Am, practice rounds, eating and living in different countries.
“It’s definitely a great learning experience and is something that is then very useful for coming out on the European Tour and playing well.
“For the players this season, I think you have to really trust your game and believe in your abilities. Most of the guys will have a chance to win their card and sometimes it will only come down to one or two shots, so every shot is really important.”