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Inside Team Uganda’s qualification to the junior Golf World Cup

Reagan Akena

Reagan Akena

Uganda’s junior national team golfers had to endure and navigate psychological challenges last month to qualify for the Toyota Junior Golf World Cup due in Japan next month.

As Mark Namanya writes, it took the calmness of coach Flavia Namakula to help Uganda’s four-man team of youngsters prevail at the par-72 Lake Victoria Golf Resort & Spa.

Many times in golf, enthusiasts of the game are consumed by a player’s ability to strike his wood or iron, or how long a golfer drives off the tee. And let’s be honest; there are few things as sweet as watching a golfer strike a ball with inch-perfect precision for 280-300 yards off the tee. Seeing it in real-time is poetry in motion.

Better still, the thrill of viewing a golfer manufacture a shot when in difficulty is incomparable. Seeing a player somehow find the green with a seemingly impossible low hook is the kind of stuff that makes the game of golf so unique and unrivalled. A player can die and resurrect so many times over a round.

But there is something else that is part and parcel of the game, but is rarely manifested in golf discussions and debate. Pressure. It is true that every game has got its own form of pressure. Rugby, tennis, basketball, soccer and athletics all have their varying kinds of pressure at different stages of action and the cream of players in these disciplines always have that uncanny ability to handle themselves admirably when the chips are down.

Last month, the Uganda Golf Union hosted the All-Africa Junior Team Championship at the Lake Victoria Serena Golf Resort & Spa. The continental tournament has fifteen countries in attendance including powerhouses South Africa, Egypt, Tunisia and Zimbabwe, among others.

Uganda was represented by a team of four: Joseph Reagan Akena, Ibrahim Ssemakula, Juma Abiti and Abdul Kakeeto. There was also a girls’ team that was composed of Frista Birabwa, Vivian Achen and Winnie Musuya. The teams were both coached by Flavia Namakula with Sam Kacungira as team manager.

There had been tons of preparation for the team, obviously, with both sets of players on the range and the course. Game management, a key component for success at championship golf level, had been reiterated by Namakula before the two teams and how not to get overawed by the occasion.

There were also specialized sessions for the shot game with most emphasis on the chip-and-putt drills, which often separate good golfers from the average ones. Namakula used as much time as she could to make her players get familiar with the conditions at Serena in Kigo, considering that all golfers in the national junior team had been selected from mostly upcountry clubs.

Achen and Birabwa are attached to Entebbe while Musuya plays from Mehta. For the boys, Ssemakula, Abiti and Akena are all Mehta-based. But the fourth member of the team, Kakeeto, is from Tooro Golf Club.

“We had more than enough practice rounds at Kigo because that was the right thing to do,” coach Namakula, also a professional golfer, later noted.

“The idea was to make ourselves get to grips with the conditions at Serena because it is the one golf course in the country whose conditions change routinely over a day because of being situated [at the lakeshore].”

At various intervals, Namakula expressed her confidence in the team and the individual abilities of each of the members of the national team.

“I told them that they were representing Uganda because they were the best we had to offer as a country; and in purely sporting terms, there is no higher reward or recognition than representing your country.”

This being a junior continental golf event, the one aspect that was always going to lack from every team was experience. It meant that the team whose set of players quickly hit the non-panic button would have greatly enhanced their chances of seizing the early initiative.

The All-Africa Golf Championship was played under a medal format and the scores of a team’s three best rounds would be considered on the day for the boys while for the girls, the two leading rounds were picked for competition tallying.

After Day One, South Africa were leading with a team score of 217 which was 15 shots better than Uganda. Their three best rounds had been 71 by Keagan Crosbie, and two 73s from Jack Buchanan and Jaden Deltel. Uganda, on the other hand, were led by Ssemakula’s 74 to go along with a 78 from Abiti and an 80 from Akena, whose round had been illuminated with a hole-in-one on No.4.

South Africa’s score of 148 from the women was the leading score on Day One as well, a massive 21 strokes ahead of Uganda who were fourth. It was inevitably apparent that South Africa were in Uganda to compete against themselves.

Their level of talent for both the boys and girls was at a different level to Uganda’s as evidenced by the yawning margins between their teams and the ones coached by Namakula. Yet Uganda’s boys committed what nearly turned out to be a regrettable strategic error of trying to chase the South Africans.

Strange things do happen in sport, but there was never going to be a miracle of Uganda usurping South Africa in this tournament. As one golf enthusiast noted, South Africa could have sent its 15 best junior teams for both the boys and girls and the results would not have been different.

“The mistakes they made on Day Two and Day Three were because they genuinely thought they could mount a chase of South Africa,” Namakula told The Observer.

“I had to sit them down and remind them that our goal was to qualify for the World Cup.
“So, I told them, it was very important to recollect themselves and play their own game, and not make mistakes in the hope of South Africa suffering an epic collapse.”

The pressure was on. After Day Three, Uganda was fourth in the standings. South Africa were champions-in-waiting having amassed an unassailable team score of 637. But Zimbabwe and Egypt, the two countries above Uganda, were just five and one stroke better respectively.

“I do recall the talk we had with the team manager Sam [Kacungira]. We held a deep discussion where we urged the team to remember the golden opportunity we had as a country but also the opportunity they all had as individuals.

“We told them that they were not going to waste all the months of preparations by losing in agonizing fashion on their own turf. I specifically asked each member for one solid final round on a course they had played enough times in March and April.”

The chat had a desired effect on the squad. Akena shot a one-over 73, Abiti returned a card of 76 and Ssemakula added a 77. That score took Uganda’s team score to 940 and meant that the country’s junior national team golfers would be returning to the Junior Golf World Cup for only the second time in history.

Only the top two sides were selected from the boys. For the girls, only winners South Africa will board the flight to the Far East. For Namakula, who called Uganda’s qualification to the Junior Golf World Cup one of the highlights of her career in golf, what made all her efforts most worthwhile was succeeding in mental adjustments on the squad for the final round.

“Golfers obviously know what pressure is. Non-golfers may not know the meaning of pressure; they can’t relate to the demands of an 18-year-old having to sink a putt before a sizeable gallery and television cameras in a tournament involving opponents from all over the continent.

“When we sat with Akena, Abiti, Ssemakula and Kakeeto on the eve of the final round, the message we set out to put across was of encouragement and inspiration. The idea was to put them in the right frame of mind to play their normal game because we felt that they had the ability to do well, but we weren’t sure whether they felt they could manage themselves mentally and the pressures that come with Day Four golf.”

Kigo is now out of the way and focus has instantly been shifted to the Junior Golf World Cup where Uganda will be returning for only the second time in history. Namakula is very realistic in her expectations.

“Japan will be a very different ball game; that much I know. But we shall go and enjoy ourselves and test our abilities against the best in the world. I have always believed that golf is a learning process and the goal is to go and play in Japan and return as better individuals and a better team of Ugandan golfers.”

The Uganda Golf Union is presently looking for funding to support the team’s preparations and tournament expenses.

What they said

Moses Matsiko, Uganda Golf Union president

What the boys did was epic, particularly on Day Four when they seemed to have blown the opportunity.

Dr Bernard Patrick Ogwel, NCS general secretary

Bravo to the team. As NCS, we shall do what it takes to support them in Japan.

Ambrose Tashobya, NCS chairman

The young golfers showed the abundant talent Uganda has in the sector of sports. We are looking forward to Japan.

Peter Ogwang, minister of state for Sports

With the right mentoring and nurturing, these kids can take us places.

Kiryowa Kiwanuka, Uganda Golf Union trustee/attorney general

Wow! It is always awesome when Ugandans do well in an international event. Golf can go places as the kids showed us.

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