For many amateur golfers aspiring to join the professional ranks, competing in the biggest Tours and tournaments in the world is a long-held dream and when opportunities to explore their ambitions come along the natural instinct is to grab the bull by the horns.
American-born Kenyan Steve Kibare, who is due to join Dalton State University on a full golf scholarship this fall (this month), has what it takes to join the big tours in the world. However, Kibare said that junior golf in the US is very competitive, he gave his best shot and managed to do well in some of the events.
"Junior golf here in America is very competitive. Kids are super talented, and even though I played really well, it was still very difficult to finish in the top five of major junior tournaments as the stakes were high. I got to play in a few major tournaments like the US Kids Teen World and got a chance to meet at the time Kenya's elite junior golfers Kellie Gachaga and Bradley Mogire from Dubai who were competing in their age groups. It was great to see Kenya represented well," Kibare told Nation Sport.
Last year Kibare was invited to play at the IMG Academy Junior World Golf Championships, which is the largest international tournament in the world and is unique for its international representation. The event was hosted at the renowned Torrey Pines golf course in San Diego California, which will also host the 2021 US Open.
"I had a great three rounds and shot 72, 77, and 68, finishing in the top 25 percentile from a field of 200. This tournament was important to me because I had been trying to qualify for it since I was 10- years-old. Playing in the tournament pushed my ranking to number two in the state of Georgia. I also got full sponsorship of golf accessories (balls, gloves, hats, shoes) and equipment from Titleist and Foot Joy," he said.
Kibare also played in several junior tours like Southern Eastern Golf Tour, Hurricane Junior Golf Tour, Georgia Junior PGA Tour and American Junior Golf Tour. "My aim is to play in the big league and that means doubling my efforts," he said.
Kibare, who visited Kenya last February, had a chance to play in the Muthaiga Open where he finished second; two points behind home player Mutahi Kibugu. He shot rounds of 75, 71 and 72.
"Considering that I had just jetted into Nairobi four days prior to the tournament and the fact that I was playing at Muthaiga for the first time, I will take it!" he said.
Kibare said that this year's highlight was capturing the PGA Junior Boys Championship shooting 71,77 and 71. "I also qualified to play at the Georgia Amateur Championship where I held the lead for one day firing a 68 and sinking a 15ft birdie putt, the highlight of the day. What an unforgettable experience," he said.
Born in Atlanta, Georgia, on October 16, 2001, his parents Rosemary and Samuel Muraguri are originally from Kenya and moved to the US in 2001.
"I cannot thank my parents enough for believing in me and going out of their way to support my golf journey. This would never have been possible without them. I have a younger sister, Nuru (15), who recently took up golf after a stint as a gymnast. She is not amused when people refer to her as Steve's sister when they meet her on the golf course. She reminds them that she has a name," said Kibare currently playing off handicap +0.5.
He said his game turned around for the better last year when his mother became his swing coach.
"My mum is a former athlete and she played tennis in school. She has never really played golf, but is gifted on the mental part of it, which I believe she developed as a tennis player. She would study my swing, and study the swing of pros and tell me what I was doing wrong and fix it. It took about six months to get my swing to where it is today, and I have seen nothing but amazing results since then. I should have brought her on earlier. She is a powerhouse, reminding me every day to believe in myself; to go out there and win as God has not finished writing my story," he said.
Among his competition highlights this year besides his second place finish in the Muthaiga Open in Kenya, and his victory in the Junior Championship, was also his fifth place finish in the Georgia Junior Boys Championship also in June where he started well firing a 69, before dropping to 77 and 74. He also shot 68, 76 and 75 to finish in ninth place in the Georgia Amateur Championship which attracted a field of 120 players in July.
But how did his golfing story begin?
"I started playing golf casually at four-years-old when my mum bought me a kids' seven-iron and a pack of plastic golf balls. I practiced my swing in the house and at the time, I would watch Tiger Woods on the golf channel and try imitating his swing. I played in my first local US Kids Junior Tournament when I turned six and shot a high 58 on nine holes. My goal was to break 50 on nine holes by the time I was eight-years-old. Much to my chagrin I got to learn that Tiger Woods got to break 50 on nine holes when he was only three-years old and Jack Nicklaus at nine-years-old - that gave me hope."
When Kibare turned 10, his parents paid for his membership at one of the top golf courses in Atlanta. "It was here that I met a few boys my age who were passionate about the game and they played golf every day. We quickly became good friends and I played with them daily. School days ended at 4pm and I would head straight to the golf course and play until 7pm," he said.
During school breaks, Kibare would spend his entire day at the golf course with his buddies, working on perfecting their game and in particular their short game.
"We would sometimes play for money, as we looked for interesting ways to keep our mojo working especially during those hot 90°F or during freezing weather days depending on the season. In golf, I believe the short game is everything, especially your 100 yard-in and your 8 -15ft putts. If you can put in 70 percent of the time you are out there practicing on your short game, you will be surprised on how much you increase your odds for birdies," he said.
Kibare said after focusing on these tips, he has seen his game improve exponentially, and he was able to break 80 for the first time when he was 11-years-old. By the time he was 14, he was able to break 72, which is every junior golfer's dream.
This summer was an unforgettable experience with all the pomp and attention from the press and spectators. He did his first interview ever which can be found on YouTube.
While in high school, Kibare was selected as the golf captain for his school team for three years in a row. He had the privilege of leading his team to the High School State Championship where they were placed fourth and he finished with an individual score of 69+78, placed third in the individual category. "I was also selected to the 2019 first team All-County and All-State (the highest high school honour) for a stellar performance in the high school golf season," he said.
"Worth mentioning, last year I won my club's Men's Championship, earning myself a VIP parking spot for a year."
Kibare is currently playing as a scratch handicap and after being scouted by multiple college golf coaches to play for their schools, he committed to play collegiate golf at Dalton State University beginning in the fall of 2020 on a full scholarship. He said, "I picked Dalton as it is a small school that will fit my needs both academically and in athletics. I will be able to play golf right away instead of sitting on the bench in the first year, as is the case with the larger colleges. The head coach, Ben Rickett, is English and I just connected with him and feel he will be able to take my golf game to where I need it to go."
Two of Dalton athletes won the Jack Nicklaus Award twice in a row (2019 and 2020). This award is given each year to the country's finest college athlete and Kibare's plan is to get it next year.
"Ben has also been able to help a couple of the golfers turn pro and my dreams and aspirations are to turn pro in the next two years with his help," Kibare said.
The 5'11 junior golfer has good advice for those looking to play collegiate sports, any sports not just golf in the US. "Do your SAT exams, next register with the National Collegiate Athletic Association at www.ncaa.org , in your Sophomore year, which I believe is Form Two in Kenya. If you are looking to play in a small college then register with the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics at www.naia.org. You do not need to pay anyone or any agency. Download the instructions and complete the application. Recruitment begins in your Junior Year, so you do not want to miss out."
He said the next step is determining which college one wants to go play for, visit their athletic page on the schools website, and look at the profile of the team so that one knows who they are competing against.
"Seek a professional if need be to help get you to their level. Finally get the email address of the coach from the website and email them your sports resume, scores and links to your YouTube videos of your games," Kibare said.
"See that you reach out to multiple college's because you never know and good luck," said Kibare who is currently ranked 230 nationally and fifth in the state of Georgia.