The magnificent Royal Harare Golf Club, adjacent the country’s premier cricket ground and next door to the president’s official residence, will play host to the Zimbabwe Open, offering a total prize-money of $600,000.
The socio-economic and political unrest that ravaged Zimbabwe at the turn of the millennium formed this African nation into a Pariah state, with several international sports teams refusing to tour on moral and ethical grounds.
Local crowds cheering you on is amazing and as a result can also raise your heart-rate and expectation level
With economic conditions also causing havoc to the social fabric of the nation, it also meant hosting major sporting events became less and less relevant and the Zimbabwe Open golf tournament, the nation’s largest single gathering of international sportsmen, also become a victim of that crunch.
Topsy turvy ride
It was first played in 1984 as part of the Safari Tour - a collection of events in Africa that were played by professionals on the European Tour during their winter. But from 2002 to 2009, the tournament went into mothballs before making a comeback in 2010 after the then-coalition government managed to induce some sanity into the country’s economy.
Currently, Zimbabwe’s leading golfer is Harrare-born and US-based Brendon de Jonge, tipped by the great Nick Price to become one of the best players on the planet once he gets a maiden PGA Tour win under his belt. De Jonge will not be part of the Zimbabwe Open though, leaving Ryan Cairns, who has also recently relocated to the United States in pursuit of a PGA Tour card, as Zimbabwe’s biggest hope in the tournament.
Cairns, sponsored by a local golf shop owned by ex-Zimbabwe cricketer Stuart Carlisle, has geared up for the weight of home crowd expectations. An exciting addition to Cairns’ game is securing the services of Simon Masilo, Ernie Els’ long-time caddie.
“Ahead of the Zimbabwe Open, I always feel like I need to bring myself down a little as my expectations are always very high,” said 30-year-old Cairns. “That is the biggest challenge for me during the week. Local crowds cheering you on is amazing and as a result can also raise your heart-rate and expectation level.
“It's an exciting time for golf in Zimbabwe. As well as always being there for any young player who is looking for advice, I’m also there if someone wants to beat me in a putting competition.”
Raising the profile
Tournament director Mike Mahachi said the Zimbabwe Open has raised the profile of the country and raised the standard of the sport there.
“Obviously, we’ve seen the tournament grow in terms of attracting the many quality players from all over the world,” Mahachi said. “So the interest in Zimbabwe has grown as demonstrated by the large turnout over the four days.
|Brendon de Jonge, who is not part of this year's event, has been tipped to become one of the best players in the world. [GALLO/GETTY]
Throughout the year, amateur golfers are vying for spots in this tournament and it has increased the quality of golfers at amateur and junior level.
“This is a big plus for golf and Zimbabwean sports in general.”
Golf is an expensive sport to pursue so financial support has always played an important role, especially in Zimbabwe where funding from big companies and government is bare minimum.
A significant number of Zimbabwe’s majority black-population has taken a liking to golf in recent years but the lack of financial resources remain a hurdle in the way to progress. Black prop Rob Saurombe, a product of renowned
Zimbabwean development coach Roger Bayliss, now trains several budding golfers at a centre in Harare which is run by Bayliss and his son.
“A lot of parents are bringing their kids as young as four and that’s very encouraging,” said Saurombe. “But a lot of those don’t have the resources. Their parents aren’t rich and they can only do so much. I can teach them the skills but financially I’m not stable myself to help them.
“It really isn’t an expensive sport. It’s just the state of our country and the economy. A lot of our junior golfers have come through the system. The Zimbabwe Golfers Association also has a development fund for kids around the country.”
One of the amateurs who had been hoping to play in the tournament was ex-Zimbabwe cricketer Graeme Cremer, who quit cricket last year following a payment dispute. The former leg-spinner, though, missed out by one shot.
Cremer, however, will be a keen spectator and will continue to pursue his dream of turning professional one day.