With just one week to go until the 2017 Road to Oman begins with the Barclays Kenya Open, here are five things to look out for when the European Challenge Tour tees off at Nairobi’s Muthaiga Golf Club.
If last year’s tournament is anything to go by, players who perform well in the season opener can take that form through the whole year.
Five of last year’s top ten ultimately finished in the top 16 of the Road to Oman Rankings and duly graduated to the European Tour: runner-up Romain Langasque (who was still an amateur at the time), Bernd Ritthammer, who was third, Dylan Frittelli, who was tied fourth, and Alexander Knappe and Sam Walker, who shared eighth place.
The champion Sebastian Soderberg also now has a European Tour card after successfully navigating Qualifying School Final Stage, a feat matched by Sebastian Heisele and Espen Kofstad – both of whom also tied for fourth in Nairobi 12 months ago.
A fast start to the season is always helpful, but the leaderboard in Kenya would seem to be a good indicator of things to come throughout 2017.
The Barclays Kenya Open will clock up a number of notable landmarks this year, having first been played 50 years ago in 1967.
Since then, greats of the game – such as Seve Ballesteros and Ian Woosnam – etched their names into its history books before the tournament joined the Challenge Tour schedule in 1991.
This year will mark the 25th time it has appeared on the Challenge Tour, in which time some memorable battles have been fought – particularly two future Major Champions, Trevor Immelman and Henrik Stenson, going head-to-head in 2000, and Edoardo Molinari starting his journey to 2010 Ryder Cup stardom with victory in Kenya in 2007.
Also reaching an impressive mark this year is local hero Jacob Okello, the Kenyan who will be competing in his home event for the 20th time.
There’s no substitute for experience, and winning is a habit, so there are six men in the field who will hope to combine both of those factors in repeat success at next week’s tournament.
Soderberg will bid to defend his title – a feat that has not been achieved since Daniel Vancsik retained the Abierto Telefonica in 2004 – though the Swede will have to do so in new surroundings, having triumphed at Karen Country Club 12 months ago.
Jake Roos also won at Karen in 2014 and is back for another shot at the prestigious trophy, as is Jordi Garcia Pinto, who was victorious one year earlier.
Muthaiga will hold happy memories for Robert Dinwiddie, the winner in 2010, Gary Boyd, who was victorious in 2009, and Maarten Lafeber, whose win came ten years before that in 1999.
No player has won the Kenyan Open more than once apart from Maurice Bembridge, who had back-to-back victories in 1968 and 1969 before adding a third win ten years later – will any of this year’s sextet join Bembridge’s exclusive club?
Along with ten local invites who will likely be playing their only Road to Oman event of the year, five full members of the Challenge Tour will be making their debuts in Kenya.
Christian Braeunig, Austin Connelly and Ryan McCarthy all impressively came through golf’s toughest marathon, the European Tour Qualifying School, the trio coming through First and Second Stages before making the cut at Final Stage to earn full Challenge Tour status for this season.
Charlie Bull missed the cut there but still has a category for 2017 and is yet to enjoy Challenge Tour action, while Niklas Lindstrom is the final debutant, having shone on the Nordic Golf League last year.
The Barclays Kenya Open is an incredibly well-supported event and is becoming increasingly important in growing golf in the region, as is reflected in the variety of African nationals in next week’s field.
As well as 28 Kenyans, players from Nigeria, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe will tee it up at Muthaiga, as well as the great diversity within the Challenge Tour’s membership, with competitors from as far and wide as Canada, Chile and Australia all preparing for another year on the Road to Oman.
In total, 28 different countries will be represented next week, a great advert for the global appeal of both the Challenge Tour and the sport of golf, and hopefully another fantastic display for the enthusiastic Kenyan support who will no doubt be lining the fairways over the weekend.