About 30 youngsters were on a golf course, practicing their swing on a hot Saturday morning in the Nigerian capital, Abuja.
The students were as young as 3 and as old as 16. For nearly a year, they’ve come out every Saturday to Abuja’s IBB International Golf and Country Club to learn the rules of the game.
Uloma Mbuko guided them with a watchful eye.
“Princess, I want to see you hold your swing,” she said to one of them.
Mbuko walked up and down the line of students.
She is the lead instructor at this beginners’ golf training program for boys and girls. Nigeria’s premier female golfer, Mbuko has played in tournaments across Africa, winning a place in nearly all of them and garnering about 200 awards. She has been called the Queen of Golf in Africa. After 17 years as a Class A professional, she has risen to a level in sports that few women in Nigeria ever reach.
Even from a young age, Mbuko showed ambition, said her sister, Chinyere Mbuko.
“She’s always been a sports lady. She started with football, then handball. So when she was starting, you know, playing golf, I was like, ‘Ah! Serious?’ ” Chinyere Mbuko said with a laugh. “But I knew she could do it.”
The golfer comes from a working-class family, so getting into the sport was not easy.
“We all know that golf is expensive, even though we try to shy away from it. But it is expensive,” Uloma Mbuko said. “Now, to be a member of a golf club in Nigeria, definitely you’re talking about nothing less than 500,000.”
The 500,000 naira ($1,640) covers only the membership. At the IBB club where Mbuko spends most of her time, the fee is upward of 800,000 naira ($2,622). A golfer has to pay for access to practice facilities, training, a caddy, proper clothing and equipment.
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More Nigerian golf professionals, like Mbuko, are trying to help young people overcome the financial hurdles of playing golf. Emeka Okatta, president and founder of the West Africa Golf Tour, said the government should help make golf more affordable.
No public courses
“There are no facilities for common people to play golf. We only have absolute member golf courses and a common man cannot walk into here and play. For you to walk in here just to have green fees is 10,000 naira ($32); that’s a lot of money. That’s probably some people’s salary in a month,” Okatta said. “But in other parts of the world, the government provides public golf courses, public drive ranges; but here there’s none and so a common man cannot play. That’s why it’s called a rich man’s game.”
Okatta founded the West Africa Golf Tour to give young golf enthusiasts more opportunities and exposure. Okatta said he was looking forward to collaborating with Mbuko’s Ladies Professional Golfers Association of Nigeria to organize tournaments.
Mbuko created the LPGAN in 2016 because there was no professional golf group for women in Nigeria. That was one of the challenges she faced in her early years. Women who wanted to become professionals had to join associations outside the country. Mbuko joined the Professional Golfers Association in South Africa and was able to attract sponsors for her training.
Mbuko has slowed down from playing in tournaments to focus on training the next generation of Nigerian women to reach the level of success she has attained. They meet several days a week under the LPGAN banner.
Mbuko’s students, like Stella Kadiri and Obiageli Ayodele, all hope to become pros.
“I’m here Monday to Friday. I’ve been playing golf since 2011,” said Kadiri, 25. “I’ve been going to Ladies’ Open, different places, and I’ve been winning. When I see my medal, it inspires me to play more.”
Mbuko instructs the women to stand in a swing barrel. It’s a metallic circle that goes around the body. The golfer runs the club across it. The prop helps the golfer learn the proper hip rotation to get that perfect swing.
“Wow, it’s fantastic,” Ayodele said after using the barrel. “The few days that I took lessons from her, I found out that my game changed automatically.”
The 29-year-old golfer is one of the few female players whose husband supports her athletic goals.
“In our country, Nigeria, they find it difficult for the ladies to get into sports because of their husbands — I mean, the ones that are married. They don’t want their wives to be out there. They don’t want them to be in the midst of other men. They feel they will not properly take care of their home,” Ayodele said.
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Mbuko said she wanted to see her ladies playing internationally in the next three years.
“Yes, we are ladies, yes, we are African, but we have what it takes, we have the talent,” she said. “I want to sit down and watch television and see Nigerian ladies competing in ladies’ Masters and say, ‘This is my girl, this is my girl.’ ”