Some say golf is developing in Nigeria. From what you’ve seen so far, do you share that belief?
Well, I will like to look at it on three broad categories. The first is in getting individuals to play for exercise and social activities, two, getting the game more developmental as in grassroot development and third is that, have we really been able to put the game in prominence; I mean professional golf? So, if you look at it under those three broad categories, the only one that I can give a pass mark is the first category, because you have more people generally interested in the game at the middle/high income bracket now, but when you look at it from grass root development, then you will see that we still have a long way to go. And for professional golf, I think we have actually gone all the way backward.
What about in the terms of facilities, I mean more standard golf courses and the likes?
Yes, we have Lakowe Lakes, Le Meridian; we have IBB Club in Abuja, which has been there before now, there is Smokin Hills in Ilara Mokin which I heard is a very good course. With that you are talking about 5-golf courses in Nigeria. Look at the whole of Cape Town in South Africa alone, there about twenty to thirty golf courses that even beat those standard courses in Nigeria. Few weeks back, I was playing in Achimota, and found the course was fantastic; the greens were in perfect conditions compared to what we have in Ikoyi, so these developments you are talking about is relative. If you set a low standard for yourself you will be proud of those achievements. The way I see golf when you look from where we were the last time Nigeria Open was played here and now, then you will not say there is any real development. Except for IBB golf course, where can you really take an international golf tournament to?
Let me take you to an area I know you are really interested in and that is professional golf. What do you think is the problem with the Nigerian professional golfers?
I won’t really know. About 4-5 year ago a group of us came together, to try and develop pro golf. What we wanted to do was to bring a business outlook to it. And most of us especially Otunba Olusola Adekanola, invested our own money, we brought someone from the marketing side, and we did one or two good international professional tournament. But the professionals may have been naïve in term of thinking one wanted to take something out of them. You have a situation where some old established golfers, who are no more interested or can’t make a proper living from regular Tour are carving out kingdoms for themselves and want to handle the administration rather than let it go for the better interest of the game itself.
At that time what we did was to put the marketing or even the marketing of the business in the hand of professional golfers despite the fact that external people were providing the fund. If you go today, you will find out that the PGAN Tour as it was then was totally owned by professional golfers, not individual. What they don’t realise is, if today, as an individual I come to set up a company just to market professional golf, I can take out the professionals and those who are interested in coming to take part in that tour will play. But I will not want to do that. I believe that the generality of the professionals need to be guided along and ultimately we will have the right planning for professional golf if everybody is aligned.
Is it possible to have a private tour?
It’s very possible based on the legal structure that is in place now. If I form a company now, no one stops me from inviting for invitational purposes or getting the right professionals here to play. No one stops me from inviting the pros from around the world to play. Assuming, I, as PWC or even MTN wants to have a tournament and I say come and play as my guest and give them the right money, at the end of the day it’s is in their own best interest to align with such people. But then it also comes back to the product you are marketing. You find out that today a lot of people are doing amateur event, sending people out attracting people to come and play golf, outside the country and the likes. To me, that is not real developmental, if you can market the pros in their current form, then we will be moving a long way.
Going back to this; Kenya Open has consistently been held. Last time, I read something about a European tour event in Mauritius. I was just too angry to follow the story. Yes, they have nice golf courses there, but the population and the rest is not there.
Going away from there just to show how backward we’ve gone in golf, the Governor Cup in tennis takes place here every year, where foreign players come here to play. The other day, there was Table Tennis event that was shown live on TV, and golf that have the outlook is not there and what is more annoying is that, I know of amateur tournaments here that with the same kind of money you can do pro-type tournament. Example is the Nigeria Cup; the type of money that is raised you can have a very lucrative pro tournament that will just meet your business or corporate objectives if attracting the amateur players is what you want to be associated with.
Let gets back to you. Coming into golf reporting years back there was this talk of one Uyi Akpata who is so good that he can compete as professional. I also know you were fifty last year, the question a therefore is how many of those years were devoted to golf?
I actually started playing golf at the end of Eight year; playing in my father’s compound in Warri, you know they have large government compound then, so we carve our own golf sets, made our clubs and just play but I think my first attempt to play in the warri golf course was at the age of 11, then had a formal handicap at Ogunu at the age of 13-14, the captain then really encouraged me. Then, it was very easy to take the game to the next level. But in Secondary school, golf was competing with Cricket; I was also a good cricketer and ended in the University being in Nigerian cricket squad. It was only when I left University at the age of twenty that I immediately drop to handicap 7. By the time I was 22-23 I was playing 1-3 handicap. Now, can I compete with the pros, yes, I was the first amateur player to play in the last set with professional in Kaduna at the Kaduna open then and I came third overall when you include the pros. I hold Nigeria amateur champion record for two years. I went to Liberia for sometimes and while there I played scratch, then I came back, playing handicap-1 for about two to three years. So yes, once you become a single handicap, all you need is to create time to become professional but then I didn’t have time to devote completely to turn pro.
From what you know now about pro golf; the big money on the US Tour, if given the opportunity to choose between PWC and pro golf which will come first?
The right climate has to be there, so if I had my chance I will be interested in pro golf. It is the same category when you have finished the University and have the wider business outlook, to make a choice then. At the end of the day I still belief no matter what the lure is then, having education at any profession is very important, it may be easier in golf, because there is long professional span, you can even play on the senior tour, but it also help your own development in the game if you have that educational exposure, that the University environment provides.
Now let go into politics of the game. I have seen some golfers who, in just less than five years as a golfer want to be captain. Who, in your thinking should be a Captain?
Generally, you must have the passion for golf. That is very important. It’s more like a balanced score card. You may know all the rules and not be passionate about the game. You may not have the clout to be able to attract or motivate people and to get client for sponsorship. All these need to come into play but at the very least you should have played the game sufficiently to be able to have all these attributes.
While I was captain I make sure that anytime there were tournaments the pros were always involved. Because that is where the real development comes from; our junior golf clinic was enhanced and it’s good to know that it’s been taken over by the ladies section, but it’s been disappointing that we’ve not moved significantly from when we set up the greens years ago. Part of the short term plan then was to regrass the fairways. Ten years down the road, we should have been redoing the greens again and not patching them. So it is difficult that new captains or Captains around Nigeria just have a one year period where people think that they just want to make those short term games. That would; in their point of view, considered to be telling contributions rather than work on a structured long term plan. And that is the disappointment in all of these.
When people talk about Ikoyi the greens are often mentioned and when they do, Uyi is always the focus. Some says the green started under Baba Afun, others say its Ayinde Sanni’s era. What role did you play in all these?
One of the key things about all of these and why people mention me is that I was constant factor in all the committees before I became captain. By the time I became captain 2002-2003, I have served in the committee for about Seven years. What happened was that, there were experiments even from Baba Afun, but it did not really start. With due respect to whoever may have said anything, I think the real physical stage started under Ayinde Sanni, but it was not even concluded during Ayindes tenure but was concluded during Charles Majorohs tenure when we had about two greens. What really came from me was sponsorships. I got sponsorship from Elf at that time, for five greens, my plan then was we should do it under a phase period of 3 greens every year, but I had someone; I mean that’s when leadership comes into play, I was very good in the game I know about the rules but I was not too technical so a got Fred Coker who is technical in the greens to support me as vice captain, because I knew that was where my deficiency was, but when I told Fred, he saw that we are doing is good. So when those six under my tenure had gone, it was very easy for Shell to say they were going to pick up most of the remainder. That was how the greens came up in that three-year time frame. 2-greens by Majoroh, I did 4 or 5 and Coker just finished everything. These were group of people who believe in that vision and delivered it.
If the rest of the Captains had bought into that vision, then the next level was going to be our fairways that needed regressing. By now we would have changed the course.
Go to Achimota, it didn’t alter in any form, just major regrassing, the greens and the irrigation system, just go and play to course today and you’ll find its excellent.
I also do wonder what ex captains don’t show much interest in their clubs after their tenure. Is it not possible to have committees of ex-captains who can still contribute to golf or their clubs after office?
Let me tell you something, until very recently, I think about two or three years ago, President Bush had came to Nigeria and they asked him why he was not critical of Obama administration. His response was that he has been there and knows the kind of trouble and problems the president goes through every day and there was no need to add to those problems and that if the President (Obama) want to ask for his opinion he is available. Now, I think that every Captain should be able to pull resources and say how can I apply people’s expertise?
The current captain; Tony Onwu is asking me if I can support him in certain initiatives and I am glad to do that. Yes, we do communicate with captains especially when there are major events, but I think the attitude about using us to work as a cartel should be purely wiped out. We should be used as advisory, the passion still remains. But the onus at the end of the day remains with the captain.
I have heard of stories of Captain not been able to perform because money was not released by the Main House especially in Ikoyi. What advised do have captains and captains to be on how to go about these?
Well, it is just like the situation in the country, where you have competition from other sections for resources. It is not different from Nigeria, a federal country, even when one is better that the other. How do you treat one person as a favoured son as against the other? That is the structure that we create in Ikoyi but there are positives from belonging to that kind of club. Lakowe with all it spledour and Ilara Mokin will not get that kind of flow so we need to work round that. I did during our time. But I don’t think the club will hold you back if you get private sponsorship and work through the channels even though most of it can be restrictive. Unfortunately the last two years that club has been thinking about Car park which is even a problem to golfers but firm understanding of it is to say Ikoyi club golf section still bring a broader mileage. It comes to people type of issues and managing them. We have golfer who have been chairmen of the club, and I don’t think there was any marked difference. Attempt to even give golf some leverage will make people say ooh, it’s because it’s his own constituency. Yes, to the extent that it avoids some minor capital project and minor expenditure and those restrictions are restrictions but when it comes to the big ticket items, you can go out there to get sponsorship.
We get sponsorship for Nigeria Cup where in One year we raised N70m. All we need is that same thing. Tell the people there is merit in the sponsorship. I can do a successful Nigeria Cup for N15m, so if those sponsors knows that their support will be properly utilized, they will back it.
Someone once described the meeting held at the club as a whole as killing. What will be you advice in that regard?
I remember I said I had been in committees for seven years before I became captain. I actually told my colleague in the office that in the next one year, I would be doing something I like. I see it like business, as we tell our people here; if you don’t prepare for meetings you are going to spend too much time on those meetings. Formal meetings are supposed to be once in a month as a whole club, and as captain you have one main committee meeting at the other main house.
In all there are three proper meetings in a month. But then there were people who said they don’t see me as prominent hole-19 member then but I was at the club every day except Sundays. I had a young family then and I told them that no matter what, I won’t be at the club on Sundays.
Is it possible for an individual to run a private golf course?
The answer will be is it possible for an individual to run a private business? The business will survive if he sets up proper structure, for succession. Whether it is the family that takes it over, or it’s given to external people to run it as business professionally matters. MicCom was a very good club, I went there once, I think the Hotel facility next door ran down over time. To get such facilities running, I think the right thing is to get third party to run it. The Ilara Mokin owner is a known entrepreneur, but the only way it can be sustained is if he would make it a whole tourist attraction. I want to be able to say I want to come to Nigeria for five days and have somewhere to go.
I can say I will go to Ilara Mokin play a round of golf there for two days then come to Lagos and go to the beaches then the fourth day you go to Lakowe and play another round there. If its made as part of a tour package you can do all these but it has to be attractive and of international standard.
What about the distance?
If golfers will want to go to Cape Town, fly for Nine hours to go and play, then they can come to Nigeria. If you understand that you can do something attractive that will take you only four hours with the right location with the right infrastructure and atmosphere, then more and more people will do it.
You rarely play golf outside Ikoyi?
Well, I play Lakowe, and I used to play Ikeja but how many times have you seen me play Ikoyi recently. The issue, is not wanting to play, but that of time. I have lots of commitments from my professional work, yet I still play but more outside the country, especially when I travel. I am still passionate about the game; it’s time that has not permitted me to play more often. I am still passionate about trying to make professional golf work in one form or the other. I am talking to the right people and with time we will make our dream known.
Have you had reasons to want to quit the game the past?
Never; I hardly even get angry with myself and that is one of the advantages of playing the game from a young age. I still remember the lesson my dad taught me at the age of 13. It was one of my very first tournaments; when I was playing Benoni tournament in Benin. It was a two day event and I was leading the first day and by the last hole, on the second day I was still leading then I try to rehearse my winner’s speech. That was what was giving me tension as a 13-year old. So, on the last hole I ended playing 11-down and ended up coming third. I cried from the time I left the club, and up to the time I went to sleep I was till crying, so my dad came the next morning and said, ‘I heard you were crying’ and I said yes. I was expecting him to say sorry, don’t worry, or something like that, but he said now that you have finished crying did the first place come to you. That got me reflecting. I meant that the only thing you needed to do was that next time, avoid mistakes. So if a missed a hole and get angry it’s going to get worse. That is my attitude to my golf and business.
Your best round ever?
I once played 63-gross in Firestone golf club in Liberia, that was in 1989, then Ikoyi club here I have played 66-during practice and at times 65-66 when the course is dry. But the one I really considered as my round of good golf under competition atmosphere was 68-gross and that was in Korea Cup. I played with Mrs Joko Olunloyo and the late General Elegbede. I was playing 3-handicap then.
Your worst score ever?
Since I started playing golf regularly, there was one time about 3 or 4 years ago that I played 90-gross. I struggled but sank a long putt on hole-18. I was celebrating because I did not break the 90 barrier. The next time I came I played 78-gross. That is golf for you.
Your current handicap?
I am 7-hanicap now, I was in Achimota recently and I played an 80-gross. I played triple bogey on one hole and drop three shots in the last two holes. That would have been 74-gross. I was playing good golf and it comes to being fit, when I am fit, I play good golf.