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Kenya’s best golfer dreams of Masters glory

  • April 11, 2023

While the 2023 Masters includes a compelling clash between players on the PGA Tour and those who have joined the new, disruptive LIV circuit, there is no denying that the best golf players in the world are competing together once again.

Eight thousand miles away from the emerald greens and white sand of perhaps the most famous golf competition in the world, Kenya’s best golfer watches on, learning and dreaming at the same time.

“I have to play the Masters one day,” Mutahi Kibugu tells DW. “It’s my favorite event. It’s a special week. There is just something about it.”

“I’m always looking at things I can learn,” Kibugu said. “Obviously these guys are talented, but I think they just do the basics a lot better. So I just look at the small things they do, like if they’re walking to the next tee and they’ve just made a birdie they’re not walking quickly they’re pacing themselves, they’re getting their heart rate down, regaining their composure.”

Kibugu started playing golf aged six in Kampala, Uganda before moving back to Kenya in 2011. The lack of competitions for juniors made it hard for Kibugu to get practice, but once he found a group he didn’t look back and turned pro in 2021.

At 22, he is already the best golfer in Kenya.

“It means a lot,” Kibugu said of the tag. “It also helps when I’m outside of the country. It gives me a confidence boost to know that I can now feel like I can play anywhere. It feels amazing.”

That confidence is translating onto the course too. Just last month, Kibugu finished a very respectable 65th in a field of 156 pros at the Magical Kenya Open. His birdie on the 18th secured a weekend spot, and went viral on social media as the local hero delighted the crowd.

“It was insane, especially that putt [in the tweet above]. My adrenaline was really pumping. I couldn’t hear anything for like two minutes,” he said with a big smile.

His performance was very encouraging, but it was also a reminder of just how much is on the line for the hundreds of pro golfers few have heard of. Kibugu is Kenya’s best golfer but in the world rankings that translates to 2256th. Making the cut at tournaments is a must if he is to secure sponsorship and to stay afloat as a professional.

More than a game

For context, the winner of the aforementioned Magical Kenya Open was Jorge Campillo from Spain and he won €320,000 ($352,000) for his efforts, Kibugu just under €4,000. In the 2023 Masters, the winner alone will earn €2.5m. For those competing on greens often surrounded by little more than bird song, the grind is real.

After the Kenya Open, the plan was to spend a month playing events in South Africa. Kibugu was aware that in order to do so not only did he need to play well enough to be invited, but he also needed to secure enough money to make the next month’s plans possible.

Mutahi Kibugu with his caddy Edwin Mudanyi at the Magical Kenyan Open
Mutahi Kibugu with his caddy Edwin Mudanyi at the Magical Kenyan OpenImage: privat

“It’s a bit of added pressure,” he said. “Playing a DP World Tour [European Tour] event is expensive. I definitely spent $1,500 before I teed it up but I wasn’t really thinking about the money at that time. I only started thinking about the money when I made the cut,” he said with a smile.

Thanks to his finish at the Magical Kenya Open, Kibugu was able to secure two more years of sponsorship. That means his tournament and accommodation costs are covered, which is a huge boost and weight off his mind.

Indeed, this is just a small peak into the hurdles many golfers in Africa face when trying to either become professional or climb the rankings.

“There’s no world ranking tour other than Sunshine, unless you go to Asia. And a lot of people don’t have the money to travel. It’s expensive, it’s tough.”

Green jacket goals

Now, with a strong performance to start the season and sponsorship secured, Kibugu has his sights set on breaking into the top 1000 in the world by the end of this year.

The 22-year-old doesn’t have the luxury of picking and choosing his tournaments, trying to strategically climb up the rankings. “I have to play everything I can.”

That’s not easy for a player who already knows what he can and can’t do.

“I’m like DJ [Dustin Johnson]. When I see a course that is long and requires right to left, I hate them,” said Kibugu.

Before worrying about that though, Kibugu is enjoying the Masters and whoever is handed the green jacket on April 9 will be met with a smile from the Kenyan.

“I’ll just be saying, that’s going to be me very soon.”

Edited by: Matt Pearson

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