x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Mena Tour: Iron-willed Ugandan plays golfing ambassador

From just two clubs in his bag, Mande's quest for excellence drives him past many a handicap.

Godfrey Mande played his first ever competition with just two irons in his armoury.
Godfrey Mande played his first ever competition with just two irons in his armoury.

ABU DHABI // Far removed from the sumptuous surroundings of Saadiyat Beach Golf Club, Godfrey Mande first sampled a game that would swiftly become his passion.

The Ugandan, born in Entebbe, the city that houses the country's international airport, could not afford membership to his local club so he sought employment as a caddie. His love for golf had been born from surreptitious school-day afternoons, when Mande and his big brother would sneak on to Entebbe Golf Club, the oldest in East Africa, and hit balls until night descended.

"I wasn't allowed to play as back then golf was a rich man's game," Mande said on the sidelines of the Abu Dhabi Citizen Open, the second event on the Mena Tour.

"The poor could not play, so we'd run through the bushes on a hole that was far from the clubhouse. My brother had clubs because he was a good player and some members helped by providing for him and giving tips. So I started caddying for him."

Mande carried his brother's bag for four years until, in 2000, he noticed a competition for caddies. Despite using the only two clubs he owned - a five-iron and seven-iron - he performed well enough for others to note his talent.

Before long, a driver and a putter were donated before Mande finally graduated to a full set, a mishmash of different sizes and brands. Soon he was provided free membership, as long as he helped with course maintenance.

Mande was awarded a nine handicap, worked as hard on his game as he did raking bunkers and then, in 2006, won the Interregional Golf Tournament, one of the country's biggest events, in Kampala. It persuaded him to turn professional.

"I compared my talent to golfers around the region and could see that I could match them," he said.

However, Mande needed funding to follow his dream.

Having founded the Uganda Professional Golf Association (UPGA) with five of his closest golfing friends, he was invited to play the Sunshine Tour, South Africa's professional circuit.

Struggling to cover expenses, Mande wrote to a friends asking for contributions, and they were happy to oblige.

Another letter found its way to the owner of Midcom, an African distributor of Nokia mobile phones, and a man Mande had taught the game. He was promptly granted an eight-month stint in a golf academy in Liverpool, England.

"It was my first time in Europe and it was terrible," he said. "It was so cold that I wouldn't come out of the house. I had never known anything like that winter. It was so tough.

"I joined the Excel Tour and played five tournaments, which was a huge experience, especially as the grass on the greens was not as high as in Uganda. They were so quick; I'd have four or five putts per hole; just couldn't get the ball to stop.

"But it convinced me to try events on the Asian Tour and then participate in World Cup qualifiers. The second year, we finished sixth, three places outside qualification, and people were so surprised.

"They thought there was no golf in Uganda, only people fighting and being killed under the regime of [the former president] Idi Amin."

Now, after relying heavily on the generosity of others, Mande wants to give back. Uganda boasts only two championship courses and around 20 professionals, yet two years ago the R&A provided free equipment for juniors, while the UPGA organises competitions for youngsters and conducts free clinics at schools throughout the country. Plans are in place for a golf foundation.

"The sport is picking up now," Mande said. "In five years' time it will be strong. The next generation is so interested because they see professional tournaments pay $1,000 (Dh3,670) to their winners.

"That's incentive enough."

Life as a professional seemed a distant ambition in the early days alongside his brother at Entebbe Golf Club, but now Mande, 32, is thinking big.

"My dream is to be on the prominent tours, like the European Tour or the US PGA Tour," he said after yesterday's second round 82 left him 24 shots off the leader Stephen Dodd.

"That's why I'm here at Mena. I'll keep on trying. You never know. one day it could be possible."

jmcauley@thenational.ae

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