Irish sports fans know more about Ghana that they think and if Paul McGinley has his way, golf will soon be inextricably linked with the west African country best known for producing gold, oil, footballer Michael Essien and boxer Azumah Nelson.
Few fight lovers will forget now Nelson called out Barry McGuigan moments after knocking out England’s Pat Cowdell with a vicious left uppercut in the first round of his WBC World Featherweight title defence in Birmingham in 1985.
“McGuigan is good and he’s a fighter but there is no way McGuigan can beat me,” Nelson said as one of his handlers chanted, “We want Danny Boy, we want Danny Boy!”
The McGuigan-Nelson fight never happened but the Ghanaian went on to claim his place as the greatest African boxer ever, becoming a three-time world champion in two weight classes along the way.
Born in Accra, the Atlantic coast capital of the nation formerly known as Gold Coast, the fighter they call The Professor is just one of Ghana’s sporting gods alongside footballers Marcel Desailly - a player who was adopted and raised in France - and Chelsea star Essien.
Ghana’s next step is to produce some golfing stars and Ryder Cup skipper McGinley has no doubt that the sport will take off in a country he has now visited many times through his golf course design work that has led to the setting up of the Ghana Golf Development Board (GGDB).
A joint initiative between the R&A’s Working-For-Golf programme, Tullow Oil, Paul McGinley Golf Design (Africa) and the Ghana Golf Association, the GGDB has been created to help develop the game of golf in Ghana, mainly through school, college and local community golf programmes, and to empower the golf clubs to become self-sufficient in terms of golf operations and revenue generation, opening up golf to new players all over Ghana.
“The standard of play down here has blown me away,” McGinley said at the opening of the Paul McGinley Academy in Accra, the first of three new academies created to develop the game in Ghana. “They play in a Seve kind of way, an Angel Cabrera mode. It’s all very natural, shaping shots and moving the ball around. They don’t study the technique a huge amount. It’s all about feel and touch.”
You get the impression that the fighter inside Paul McGinley would love Nelson as much as he already loves McGuigan. But right now his mission in Ghana is to help bring the game of golf to the people so that businesses can thrive and Ghana may one day have a golfing hero of its own.
“We want to introduce more people to the game,” said McGinley, who spends an average of 40 days a year in Ghana, a country that’s the size of the UK but with a population of just 24 million. “We want to break down the mystique here in Ghana of golf being a game for the rich.”
Known as “the Switzerland of Africa,” Ghana is a developing country that is experiencing huge economic growth thanks to its mineral wealth and a tourism boom.
One of the world’s largest producers of gold, it also exports crude oil, natural gas, timber, electricity and diamonds. Tourism is becoming another huge export with earnings of US$ 2 billion contributing six percent of the country’s GDP in 2011, according to government figures.
The European Ryder Cup captain is doing his bit to grow the game in Ghana with significant investment by Tullow Oil, a multinational oil and gas exploration company founded by Roscommon-born Aidan Heavey in 1985 and now one of Europe’s largest oil businesses with interests in 25 countries.
Ghana’s offshore Jubilee oil field is Tullow’s largest discovery and the company’s business philosophy is to give the local population a stake in the business and other opportunities.
As Heavey says: “There’s a whole spectrum of things that we can get right in Ghana, and it can be used as an example of how the oil industry should work in new countries.”
Growing Ghanaian golf is part of that plan as Tullow Oil’s Kevin Quinn explained at the opening of the first of three new golf academies created by the Ghana Golf Development Board, which appointed Limerick native Tom Kennedy as Director of Golf this summer.
“When we leave Ghana in 25-30 years time, we want to leave a legacy,” Mr Quinn said. “What we want to do is try to create business opportunities through golf.”
Kennedy has worked in the Irish golf industry since the mid 1990s, working at venues such as Adare Manor Hotel & Golf Resort, Old Head Golf Links, Doonbeg Golf Club, The Heritage and Mount Juliet.
His post is funded by The R&A and his mission is not only to promote participation in the game in Ghana but also give all the golf clubs across the country advice on how to deliver golf and make it thrive as a business.
“I’m working with all the golf clubs, trying to empower them rather than do it for them,” Kennedy says of his new job. “We are filling in the gaps they have. There is a big focus in developing golf and getting more people playing the game.
“There is a younger generation through college now and we are trying to get them involved in golf as well. Apart from that we are also working on the corporate level to get more companies involved in helping finance golf.”
With just 14 golf clubs and fewer than 3,000 affiliated golfers, there is much work to be done in Ghana. However, Tullow Oil’s contribution has been immense.
The new, floodlit academy at Achimota in Accra is now in full swing with 15 fully serviced bays, its four target greens contrasting with the native Ghanaian red soil and sand. It will have eight teaching professionals with uniforms donated by Adidas as well as lost cost rental clubs donated by TaylorMade.
The other two academies at Tema Golf Club and The Royal Golf Club- Kumasi are nearing completion while all three golf clubs have each taken delivery of thousands of dollars worth of equipment, sourced as distressed sales within Ireland and vetted by equipment specialist Barry Drennan from Reeltech (Ireland ltd) and paid for by Tullow Oil.
Reeltech Ltd are contracted to provide full technical support and service information to each club over the next 12 months while Tullow Oil are nearing the completion of a $6 million investment in a training facility for greenkeepers.
Stage two of the development plan is well underway and Tullow Oil have commissioned the purchase of $1 million worth of golf construction equipment to help.
McGinley was commissioned by Tullow to redesign Achimota Golf Club in Accra, replacing greens and tees, planting modern grasses and installing modern irrigation and enhanced each golf hole with natural landscaping, light mounding, trees and shrubs, without disturbing the original African feel of the 1934 design.
The course, which will be open for play later this year, has been sown with the latest Bermuda grasses and will be maintained by a greenkeeping team that has received expert training from agronomist Sylvain Duval and grow-in manager Paul Kelly.
Golf is cheap in Ghana by world standards with membership costing at little as $200 a year and participation is on the rise already with over 100 golfers competing in the recent Ghana Amateur Open.
There are high hopes that players from Ghana will soon be competing in R&A Championships and eventually, the Olympic Games. A fledgling professional tour is also planned for professionals who currently ply their trade in events in Nigeria and other neighbouring countries.
The Ghana Golf Development Board is developing and implementing grassroots programmes with the aim of greatly increasing participation amongst the youth and business communities across Ghana.
“We would try and get as many schools [involved] as possible, especially those in communities,” says Dr Felix Frempong, a board member of the Ghana Golf Association. “Like any other sport, talent is the youth, so it is all about the youth.”
The future already has name in Accra-born Daniel List, a member of the Achimota Golf Club, who attends school at Wellington College in Berkshire on a golf scholarship.
Winner of the Under 14 European Junior Championships, organised by US Kids Golf, in Scotland in May, he then finished third behind the Island’s Kevin Le Blanc in the Irish Under 15 Amateur Open at West Waterford in August.
Duncan Weir of the R&A adds: “The R&A would love to see a golfing role model emerge from Ghana, a Michael Essien, someone the youngsters can look up to. Hopefully in the coming years, we will have Ghanaians playing regularly in our championships.”
The current Ghana Golf Development project is scheduled to last three years with the aim of providing a grassroots legacy that will endure for years to come.
With McGinley, Tullow Oil and the R&A all working together with the Ghana Golf Association, the future looks bright.
What’s been achieved so far can only be described as a knockout blow worthy of The Professor himself.
**For further information on the Ghana Golf Project, please contact Tom Kennedy at email@example.com