Previously overlooked by golfers, Kenya — a dramatically beautiful land of big-game safaris and other exotic attractions — has almost overnight emerged as one of the game’s hottest destinations.
Long overshadowed by lion safaris and other exotic attractions, Kenya’s golf courses went almost unnoticed by tourists despite the game’s deep roots in the sun-baked African earth.
Then, in 2009, the International Association of Golf Tour Operators voted Kenya the Undiscovered Golf Destination of the Year. And, in 2011, Kenya was nominated as one of the world’s top eight golf destinations at the International Golf Travel Market convention.
Today, visitors are increasingly mixing rounds of golf at the country’s more than 40 courses with safari excursions to the Maasai Mara and other prime wildlife viewing spots on the savannah grasslands of the interior.
Both Kenya’s landscape and climate are ideal for golf. Courses are found everywhere from the lush central highlands to the mountain slopes of the Great Rift Valley to the spectacular Indian Ocean coastline. Though the country is situated on the equator, temperatures in the highland areas average around 22 Celsius. Even during the two rainy seasons (April and November), the rain usually falls before 10 a.m. and after 5 p.m.
Another selling point is that many courses are situated at an altitude of more than 1,500 metres (5,000 feet), giving golfers an additional 10 yards or so of carry on their drives.
Golf arrived with the first British settlers, who liked to say that each new town should have a church, a social club and a golf course, although not necessarily in that order.
In 1906, soon after the arrival of the East African Railway, Kenya’s first course, the Nairobi Golf Club (now the Royal Nairobi Golf Club), opened just minutes away from the capital city’s bustling downtown. So wild was the countryside in those days that a leopard was shot on one of the fairways in 1919.
Kenya’s roster of courses now includes 13 18-hole layouts, several of which rank among the finest on the continent. Here, five must-play courses found throughout a golf destination finally getting its due:
- Karen Country Club
Home of the Kenya Open (Feb. 13 to 17), this lushly beautiful course near Nairobi features fairways that wend through natural woodlands and around pools and wetlands. On site is the famous plantation house once owned by Baroness Karen von Blixen, the author of Out of Africa.
- Muthaiga Golf Club
Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, Vijay Singh and other luminaries have walked the tree-lined fairways of a venerable Nairobi club that will celebrate its centenary in 2013. Brilliantly renovated in 2004 by South African golf architect Peter Matkovich, Muthaiga’s numerous lakes and ponds are a breeding ground for Egyptian Geese, while monkeys love to frolic on the dogleg par-five fifth hole.
- Royal Nairobi Golf Club
Flowering bushes, bougainvillea and a huge variety of tree species lend colour and aesthetic appeal to a meticulously maintained course where the lovely Ngong Hills are in almost constant view.
- Rift Valley Golf Club
The showpiece of the award-winning Great Rift Valley Lodge and Golf Resort is a dramatically contoured and heavily bunkered beauty that claims to have the most diverse birdlife in Africa. More than 300 species — including pelicans and flamingoes — stop by the course’s five major water features.
- Vipingo Ridge Golf Resort
Opened in 2009 near Mombasa, Vipingo’s Baobab Course is Kenya’s newest headliner — and surely one of Africa’s most ideally situated courses, offering panoramic views of the Indian Ocean to the east and sunsets over the vast African interior to the west. The risk-reward David Jones design meanders around waterfalls, lakes and streams rich in birdlife.