Golf is a game of business so they say. Figures on the international golf scene suggest that an estimated 90% of Fortune 500 CEO’s play golf. It is also said that bosses who don't play golf are paid 17% less on average than those who do.
Whether that is true of the members of the Freetown Golf Club will take more investigative nous than Insight magazine has at its disposal. Nevertheless, the club’s fortunes are a useful barometer of the country’s economy, waxing and waning in tandem.
According to the Club’s website, it was founded in January 1904 by British military officers. The original course was situated at Brookfields, and it wasn’t until the end of 1928 that it moved to its present ocean side location on Lumley Beach. During Sierra Leone’s period of civil conflict, the club was forced to close, but re-opened as soon as peace returned and in January 2004 celebrated its Centenary Year, with much pomp and ceremony.
Today the club has two squash courts, tennis courts, a new gym, and its 18-hole links golf course is on prime Freetown real-estate. Frankly, there is probably nothing primer, and although there have been problems with encroachment, the club’s vice-like grip on the land speaks volumes about the quality of its membership.
Since February 2015, it has been under the stewardship of Yada Hashim Williams, one of Sierra Leone’s foremost lawyers. Williams’ strategy is to edge the club towards profitability while maintaining etiquette and exclusivity.
Running costs are paid through the annual membership fees, which he says are very low, and while on paper the 400-strong membership looks healthy, few apparently use the club regularly. “The club has traditionally covered its running costs out of the annual subscriptions, supplemented by renting out the facilities for weddings and receptions etc. For a long time, we struggled to make ends meet. The club’s expenditure has always exceeded its income,” he says. It is however now in the black, and last year netted a healthy Le120 million profit.
As recently as a few years ago the club was very different, Williams says. The country was in the midst of its mining boom, there was a large expat community and the golf course was a place where deals were struck. Today a quiet and understated membership drive is taking place, which relies on the personal contacts of existing members; and an initiative to encourage the next generation to take an interest in golf by offering free golfing classes to schools is underway.
The range of membership options includes full, temporary and corporate. Arne Johansen of LEOCEM – Sierra Leone’s only cement manufacturing company, points out that new members can borrow a set of clubs and try out the game, before they decide whether its for them or not.
The club has regular tournaments. Its biggest and most prestigious, the Sierra Leone Open attracts golfers from all over the world. It offers a relatively healthy first prize of $10,000 and a total prize purse of $35,000. It has been held only intermittently over the years for various reasons. Last year it was called off because of the Ebola epidemic.
In 2013, the Sierra Leone Open was won by a Ghanaian. Williams explains that Sierra Leonean professionals struggle financially to develop their game. “There is no sponsorship,” he says. “In the past, big companies in Sierra Leone sponsored professionals, but not these days. The situation in Ghana, Nigeria, Liberia and Senegal is different. They have big corporates.”
The West Africa Golf Tour, a move by the prestigious IBB International Golf and Country Club in Abuja to promote and develop the game in the region, could be just the boost that Sierra Leone’s golfing talent needs. Its objective is to host a series of national, regional and international professional golf tournaments in countries across West Africa.
According to the West Africa Golf Tour’s spokesperson: “The blossoming middle-class sector has an increased interest in sport and leisure activities, and is creating an emerging domestic tourism market in West Africa which in turn will stimulate the development of hotels and infrastructure for both international and domestic markets.”
Sierra Leone is not yet on the list of the West Africa Golf Tour’s prospective host countries, but the opportunity to play on one of West Africa’s most historic and picturesque golf courses while enjoying the hospitality of one of our international-brand hotels might yet persuade the organisers in the future. In the meantime, the Freetown Golf Club with its majestic ancient cotton trees and spectacular Atlantic sunsets, will remain one of the best kept secrets on the international golf circuit for just a little longer.