European Tour professionals are currently playing a two-week stint in Kenya. This week’s Kenya Savannah Classic follows on the heels of the Magical Kenya Open which, in its days as the plain Kenya Open, was one of the highlights of the much-loved old Safari Tour. The latter consisted of a five or six-week circuit where, as Ireland’s David Jones told GGP, “You never knew what was going to happen next.”
The tour ran from the 1960s through to the 1990s and, without a doubt, paved the way for the camaraderie which exists in European Ryder Cup sides of today. How, after all, could you fail to forge a close bond with your fellow golfers when playing in that less-than-stable part of the world?
In 1976, a promising young player by name of David Moore was shot dead in Zambia by a Mufulira mine chief who later shot himself. Also around that time, a plane taking players to Lagos for a Nigerian Open was hijacked at Entebbe Airport.
David Llewellyn, who went on to win the 1987 World Cup for Wales with Ian Woosnam, has vivid memories of gunmen boarding the plane and warning everyone to sit still. “It was scary all right,” the 1971 European Tour rookie of the year said, “but we were lucky. As it turned out, the gunmen had nothing more sinister in mind than stripping the plane of cigarettes and booze.”
“Everyone talked of the Safari Tour as a great way to warm up for the European circuit but there was so much more to it than that. The weather was great and the courses were mostly in tip-top condition. There were plenty of hair-raising moments, but there was also a never-to-be forgotten social side to the trip.”
Llewellyn was again in the wrong place at the wrong time when he had an AK-47 stuck in his back as he was frogmarched back to the clubhouse at Port Harcourt. He had taken to the course for a few friendly holes at a time when, though he did not know it, the course was closed following the latest Nigerian military coup. (President Murtala Muhammed had been assassinated.)
Sam Torrance, the 2002 Ryder Cup captain, was another to experience a touch-and-go moment when he and fellow Scot David Chillas had to catch a flight ahead of a Nigerian Open. When they learned the airports had closed, their worries about making the tournament in time led to them hailing a taxi for the two-day trip.
The ride was straightforward enough until the taxi nudged a cyclist. “We barely touched him,” remembers Torrance. Even so, they were confronted by a party of gun-wielding security men who seemed to think the golfers and the driver were as guilty as each other. Noisy altercations ensued before they were finally allowed to go on their way.
Where next year will be the 50th anniversary of Llewellyn’s win in the Kenya Open, the aforementioned David Jones bagged that title in 1989. Jones’s win came at a good time, i.e., shortly before the Kenyan currency was up rather than down. Intriguingly, all of the Safari Tour events offered big purses at one time or another and attracted a veritable Who's Who of players. Peter Thomson was among the pioneers, and he was followed by a spate of great names including Torrance, Brian Barnes, Nick Faldo and Seve Ballesteros.
“Everyone talked of the Safari Tour as a great way to warm up for the European circuit,” Jones said, “but there was so much more to it than that. The weather was great and the courses were mostly in tip-top condition. There were plenty of hair-raising moments, but there was also a never-to-be forgotten social side to the trip.”
Jones, nowadays a well-known course designer, did not know whether to cringe or laugh as he recalled what happened on the night he and Scotland’s Bill Longmuir went to a disco in Nairobi called “Florida.” An angry Dutchman launched into the two of them, calling them “a couple of prima-donna professionals” and pouring scorn on the way they swanned around the world playing golf without noticing anything else. “I bet you’ve never been to Mombasa,” he said, accusingly.
The pair had to confess that they had not. Such was the introduction to a crazed scheme in which this unlikely threesome set off in the middle of the night to that ancient port, with the Dutchman negotiating the dangerous route with a revolver tucked between his knees.
Once in Mombasa, Jones and Longmuir spent two days lying on the beach while, back at the tournament course, there was mounting concern for them. Fellow tour pros wondered if they were safe, and why on earth they were not practising with the rest of them?
Such criticisms came to an abrupt halt when Longmuir was involved in a play-off and Jones finished third. “There was a lesson in there somewhere,” Jones suggests.
Jones recalled another rather less successful trip to a South African beach when he was with fellow Irishman Eddie Polland.
It was more or less the last year of apartheid and, as the duo approached the entrance to a glorious stretch of sand, there was the choice of one entry gate for whites and another for non-whites. The Irishmen, by way of saying what they thought of the apartheid regime, went through the non-whites entrance. They were arrested and spent the afternoon sitting in a cell.
“Where was Nick Faldo in all of this,” I asked out of interest.
“Faldo was Faldo,” Jones said. “Nick was a pioneer for the generation who were totally dedicated to the golf. Most of us loved all aspects of the Safari Tour.”
Especially Woosnam you would have to think. At a time when he was still playing the European Tour from a camper van and eating baked beans, he put his finances to rights by winning a Range Rover for a hole-in-one in the Zambian Open.
It was worth more than the winner’s purse.
Top: A giraffe at the 2019 Magical Kenya Open at the Karen Golf Club in Nairobi