Aaron Rai returns to the scene of an emotional victory and one of his career highlights at this week’s Magical Kenya Open presented by Johnnie Walker, an event which he won on the Challenge Tour in 2017 in front of his Kenyan-born mother and jubilant crowds.
The Englishman has a special connection to this week’s venue Karen Country Club, where he triumphed four years ago.
It was his first of three Challenge Tour victories, and the win came on Mothers’ Day as his own mother watched on proudly, having returned to her birthplace for the first time since leaving as a teenager. Additionally, Rai’s sister now calls Karen, the neighbourhood in the outskirts of Nairobi which hosts this week’s event, her home.
While the crowds will not be there to support him this week, Rai is feeling confident that his connections to the club, and the country, can give him a timely boost.
Guido Migliozzi of Italy defends his title this week, two years after winning his first of two titles in the 2019 season at Karen Country Club – the event was cancelled last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Darren Fichardt will reach a notable milestone on his home continent as the South African makes his 400th European Tour event, while Englishman Sam Horsfield – a two-time winner in the 2020 Race to Dubai – returns to action for his first appearance of 2021 after an injury lay-off.
Aaron Rai: “It feels like a home away from home here, my mum was born here and my sister lives here in Karen now. It very much has a home feel for me, it’s always going to be a special place with the memories I’ve had here down the years – I don’t think that’s something I’ll ever forget so I think any time that I’m here to play golf or here full stop is a blessing.
“It was the first event of the season in 2017, I practiced well during the off-season and was playing well going into it, which was important. But it was key to get off to a good start, I think I was in the top three and close to the lead after the first couple of days and I stayed very calm and patient, and thought very well while I was playing.
“I think on top of that, the support of the people that were there on Saturday and Sunday – I think they found out during the week that my mum was Kenyan and I was a fellow Kenyan and it was amazing the support that I had so it definitely played a role in the victory. It’s just a shame that there won’t be the same crowds here this week but it’s just awesome that we’re here and playing this week.
“It meant a huge amount, even looking back on it now four years later. It’s special and probably my fondest memory of any tournament win that I’ve ever had. It’s just the history, with my mum being born here, it was the first time she had come back since she left as a teenage girl, it was Mother’s Day so it represented another day that was really important to the family.”
Guido Migliozzi: “It’s a good feeling (to be back), I have some great memories from this course. As the tournament says, it’s ‘Magical’ so it’s very nice to be back.
“I like the pressure, I like to be on the course with my caddie starting every single shot with a good strategy. It’s the kind of feeling that you have when you are competing for a title.
“It was not over until the very end (in 2019) because there were four, five players, only one shot apart. The second shot on the 18th, the last hole, was incredible. It just went straight to the pin; it was so good. I was thinking I had to be aggressive – I have always been aggressive – and it went really well because I hit the pin and the pin position was tough. I was confident with myself and I had a good yardage so I just went for the pin.
“The golf course is great. I like it because it’s tight and you have to shape the ball. You need to have really good control of your swing, of your ball. I really like it and it’s a good test for everyone, with the altitude, and it’s firm. It will be a great week for sure. If you hit the green you will 100 percent have a birdie chance so it’s very nice and I’m sure everyone will enjoy the week.”
Darren Fichardt: “It’s awesome. I haven’t been to Kenya, it’s my first time. It’s very African, when we got off the plane onto the bus, African music was playing. It’s amazing and people here are so friendly, it feels awesome to be here.
“Golf course looks quite tight, looks like the greens are pretty small and quite slopey, so your iron play is going to be sharp and if you miss the green you’re going to be using your lob wedge a lot – I don’t think there will be too many bump and runs on these greens. The vegetation is quite dense so if you miss the fairways I think you’re going to be in quite a lot of trouble.
“I did a bit of work and I didn’t know what to expect this year – I came out with lots of swing thoughts and a lot of little fiddly things with my chipping. Through my first nine at Qatar I felt very uneasy, didn’t feel comfortable, and then everything clicked.
“The second round my swing started coming right and by the third round everything was good. I struggled a bit on the final round but it was still good to shoot level in those conditions, having not been in competitive golf for so long, I was quite happy with the result. It was good and that’s why I’m happy to be out here playing two in a row.”