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Change or Implode, PGA Nigeria at crossroads

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In August 2001, the Professional Golfers Association held their most important Annual General Meeting till date. The hallmark of the meeting was the appointment of Tony Uduimoh as the Director of the body.

Uduimoh’s appointment was a mild colouration of the meeting’s atmosphere, because it also meant that Matthew Jacobs (Ikoyi Club 1938 Golf Shop franchisor, in Lagos) was denied a return to his position that year.

For context, Jacobs had held the position since 1969 that the association was formed before the protest vote that knocked him off the post.

20 years after, on March 9, 2021 at the Port Harcourt Golf Club in Rivers State, the reign of Samson Lawal as the Director of the Association will be ending for another successor to emerge.

The contest this time, however, is not about who, but about the capacity of whomever that triumphs to halt the steady slide in the fortune of the once enviable sports association.

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Soon after the resumption of Uduimoh as the Director in 2001, he struggled to carve a clear path for the future of the game, but he somewhat struck few wins that could be credited as the fulcrum that propelled the association for up to a decade after he left.

One of his achievements is getting Africa’s biggest Tour, Sunshine Tour, to offer associate membership for top players in Nigeria’s ranking to feature in their events.

Some co-incidences worked well in favour of the association, including sponsorship from some well-meaning Nigerians for topmost amateur talents to be honed abroad. By some stroke of luck, the PGA found itself with a retinue of talented teenagers, who were ready to devote their energy and time to the game.

Those who have followed professional golf for over a decade in the Nigerian community would be familiar with some young talents that hugged headlines like Edet Umoh, who won TPC (Tour Partners’ Championship) at Ikoyi Club with an immaculate chip-in from the hole-18 bunker.

There was Ali Abdullahi who sliced through every par five fairways with monstrous drives, before it became a fad now, thanks to science and technology.

Christian Godfrey, the standing course record holder on IBB Golf and Country Club, Gift Willy, Bashiru Bakare and Gboyega Oyebanji. All were in their 20s and played exceptional golf that earned the country some global attention at one time or the other.

Soon in 2007, the PGA and some stakeholders established the PGA Nigeria Tour, which professionally marketed and ran pro events from the point of value addition and partnership with corporates.

The credit for setting up the Tour lies squarely at the ingenious and futuristic leadership of Jamiu Oyebajo, who was then the Director and former resident professional at Ikeja Golf Club in Lagos.

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That perhaps was the most brilliant effort to have set professional golf running in the country. But despite the flying start it had in 2007 with Sola Lawson as the Chief Executive, the vision was halted in 2012; largely due to the capacity of the succeeding PGA board to fully comprehend its role in the new era. Economy, politics and lack of vision played its part too.

At its peak, not only did Nigeria keep a steady run of premium events that attracted other African and European players to play. Nigerian players also shone with exceptional scores from especially from younger players.

For African professional golf players, it was easier to fork out N400, 000 (about $2, 600- given that dollar to naira was about 150), to secure membership of the Nigeria PGA and play themselves to qualify for the top events in the calendar.

Apart from close to 40 pending applications that had to wait for approval of the Executive Committee to be admitted at some time, more than 10 players of other nationalities played frequently on local events.

Of course, the Ghanaian duo of Emos Korblah and Vincent Torgah were some of the biggest beneficiaries (and still did till few moons ago) from the prosperity of the PGA of Nigeria.

Since the collapse of the Tour project and gradual withering of structured system around the Association’s event, professional golf has been surviving at the mercy of ‘charity’ events. That’s perhaps the best way to describe events that sponsors have no-specific return on its investment.

Sola Lawson is still hopeful that the body can still get back on his feet, “The PGA can dust up the template it ran with year ago and still run with it. The Tour model has worked globally and Nigeria can’t be different.

“If it activates the Tour model through an independent body it can then focus on developing younger players. We have too few young members of the body today in a few years’ time a lot of them would turn seniors (over 50 years). We don’t have 18 t0 22 years pros again in large numbers.”

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The recent installments of the PGA Qualifying School that screens and admits amateur golfers has been unattractive too, as low scores and older players have been the experience at each turns.

In Jos 2015, out of over 76 that filed for the test, only five scaled the rounds. Apart from being the most woeful exhibition at the Q-School, it also shows the decline of interest by top amateur players for the money making rank.

COVID sports restrictions might be a convenient reason for the drop in golf events, but the truth is that the game was already on ventilator of some sort before the lockdown.

Last week, Oche Odoh, the last of the country’s top talents still competing in the international scene, picked a qualification for two important international events; The Magical Kenya Open and Kenya Savannah Classic, both to be hosted back to back on the third and fourth weeks of March 2021 at the Karen Country Club in Nairobi.

This all pales into irrelevance once the Annual General Meeting at the Port Harcourt the week preceding his tee-off rounds off with uninspiring take home.

There are campaigns that hinges the revival of the association of Tony Philmoore, who of late has shown interest in putting his personal resources and possible state might behind the redemption project.

With no idea currently challenging or ready to beat his proposal, he might be on an easy cruise for the leadership of the PGA, from the AGM. But what ails the association is deeper than a singular effort and teeming friends ready to hand a cheque.

If the best season for the association came on the heels of the Tour establishment, the PGA may reconsider securing sound partnership with corporate Nigeria.

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None of the model PGAs (of America and of Europe) thrives on benevolence of friends alone. They ride such influence to build sustainable business models that can aid marketing and leveraging needs of different brands. Such are on rinse and repeat or tweaked for industry needs as well.

Professional golfers, except for those that have specialized skills to build such system may need to just engage consultants to optimize their operations for such possibilities. “More of what need to happen at the AGM I believe is the election of key officers, that would work with the Director.  The head of the association can on its own not do much. It is that support that we are working and should ensure is occupied by the right set of people.” Says Dominic Andrew, a former Tournament Director of the body.

In a post COVID economy where corporate resources are laser-focused at value yielding activations, the need to evolve the operations of the PGA Nigeria is needed now than ever.

So, should Philmoore stroll in or face an opposition that edges him out, what will count more is the collective capacity of the team that emerges to reach deeper into their hats and pull out aces after aces.

Anything short of it will only leave the association as hopeless and empty as the future currently looks.

• Emehelu is a Lagos-based golfer, journalist

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