American Airlines News – Field of dreams: A caddie’s journey to build Nigeria’s first public golf range
(Editor’s note: This story was written and produced by Golf Channel and NBC Sports features producer Nicole Gaddie, @NicoleGaddie)
He stepped onto the golf course for the first time in search of an American culinary delicacy. A food he had only read about in books.
Abimbola Olakanye, or Bebe as he’s known on tour, flew from West Africa to Maryland a few weeks prior. It was supposed to be a summer spent with his father, who had worked in the D.C. area since the mid-1970s, but he quickly learned hotdogs were more intriguing.
The best way to feed his obsession was at a nearby golf course called Gunpowder. Thirty minutes north of the U.S. Capitol, it was a blue-collar track where anyone could play for 12 bucks in the evenings and get a decent meal.
His routine was simple, chase a ball around nine holes and follow it up with a beef frank. “The American dream,” the 16-year-old thought. After a couple months, the head pro let him play for free and his father let him cancel his return flight.
This was the summer of 2001, a time when America was hopeful and welcome. Then on September 11th, an American Airlines Boeing 767 crashed into the World Trade Center. Three-thousand Americans were killed, and anti-immigrant sentiments soared.
Bebe felt the repercussions during his first day at his new American high school. After being made fun of for wearing his traditional African clothes, he started showing up in long trousers and collared shirts, only to be ridiculed for being a “preppy boy.” He was blessed to be an American, but knew he was still Nigerian at heart.
The next year as a 10th grader, his P.E. teacher encouraged him to try out for the high school golf team. His 9-hole score was good enough to make varsity, prompting a boost of self-assurance that perhaps golf could be more than a talent.
Founded as a meeting place for members of Congress and businessmen, Congressional Country Club had been a site steeped in privilege and tradition since its opening in 1924.
Presidents Coolidge, Eisenhower, Taft and Wilson were frequent visitors, while business giants Rockefeller, Chrysler and Hearst also retreated from the public eye to the comfort of the club’s grandeur.
The course itself was impressive, too, sprawling over 36 holes and known for hosting major championships.
Wide-eyed, Bebe drove through the gates of the club, oblivious of its status. He was there upon recommendation from his high school coach who suggested he apply for a summer job as a caddie.
The club needed help and offered him the job on the spot.
The transition from municipal golf to country club was stark. His first day, the caddie master assigned each new hire to a veteran caddie who would teach the ways of the course. Only after successful completion, would the young caddies be unleashed on the heavyweight membership.
Bebe was paired with one of the longtime loopers who walked the line of outlaw and foreman. Tom, better known as “Toothless Tom,” was the ringleader of the group and what he lacked in incisors he made up for in knowledge he’d collected over years treading fairways across the country.
His claim to fame was caddying for Arnold Palmer at the King’s home club, Bay Hill, nestled among tangerine groves outside Orlando, Florida. Tom drank, smoked and couldn’t stay away from poker nights, but was also sensitive enough to keep a note from Palmer safely hung in his locker.
He recognized Bebe’s humble nature and took him under his wing, but never told him what the note from Palmer said.
On the course, Tom counselled the rookie on wind, reading greens and club selection. He also taught Bebe how the members liked to play. Some were low maintenance, consuming Bloody Marys and screwdrivers as soon as they cleared the first green. Others were serious about their games, and their gambling.
Bebe learned the best caddies were always requested for Saturday morning’s big stakes game. An opportunity to get a front row seat to the action until the players dropped, cashless, on 18.
“As a caddie in the group, messing up a read or losing a ball was a big crime,” Bebe explained. “You could lose your job with the group. Three strikes and you could be banned from reading a putt.”
All of Tom’s advice led Bebe to become one of the best caddies at the course. By the end of the season, his demeanor and knowledge had matured. His rise in the ranks was highlighted at the club championship when he helped his player win the title.
One day, Tony Terry, the faithful caddie to four-time PGA Tour winner Duffy Waldorf headed to the club to pick up a few rounds during an off week. Being one of the only black caddies on tour, he suggested Bebe take a crack at the pro ranks.
A week later, Bebe found himself at the next Korn Ferry Tour event in Cleveland.
Walking into the caddie lunchroom he bumped into a professional who had skipped the upscale player dining area. They sat and ate together while Bebe picked his brain about tour life.
The player failed to earn his PGA Tour card that season but would come back to win the PGA Championship eight years later and ascend to world No. 1.
The player was Jason Day.
After a successful first week, Bebe got used to hearing two words, “you’re hired.”
The next decade was a blur as he traversed the country in his 2001 Honda Accord, caddying for more than 16 professional players across a handful of men’s and women’s pro tours.
On one particular trip, he and another caddie drove from Milwaukee to the first stage of qualifying school in California. It was common for caddies to carpool to cut the cost of gas while their players flew. Driving 42 hours in a straight shot remains the longest trek he’s ever completed.
While caddie relationships could be fleeting, Bebe was committed to his players until they dropped out or let him go. Watching leaderboards change each week was a potent reminder of golf’s ephemeral spirit. Nothing was guaranteed.
For as much as golf provided him, it also invited moments of contemplation. It had been 13 years since Bebe picked up his first bag, and even longer since he lived in his native country. He had been preoccupied with opportunity in America. Now, as his sore knees weakened, the thought of the future and what he left behind bothered him.
Of the 164 members in the World Golf Hall of Fame, five are from Africa, of which four are South African.
Not one is from Nigeria.
Golf was introduced to Africa via South Africa in 1843. A country colonized and settled by Europeans, the sport was also racially, a game of whiteness. Names that reached international greatness include Bobby Locke, Gary Player, Ernie Els and Retief Goosen.
Segregation and inequality remained a societal problem and golf was not immune. Today, Lost City, a Gary Player-designed South African golf course, features a towering palatial hotel and casino modeled after an African Kingdom. Green fees on the weekend are 1500 rand, the equivalent of about $80. Pricey for a country where the average monthly income hovers around $1,170.
The situation is more extreme in other African countries like Nigeria, where socioeconomic status determines who is allowed entry. One of the most exclusive clubs, IBB International Golf and Country Club, costs almost $2,000 for initiation fees. The average monthly income in Nigeria is only $103 and 40 percent of the population live in poverty.
“In Nigeria, we have up to 50 golf courses. American standard good courses? I can only think of four or five,” Bebe said. “In third world countries you never get the chance to play golf if you’re not wealthy.”
While looking at a map and thinking about the unfairness of it all, an idea surfaced. What if he could introduce golf to those in West Africa who were unaware the sport even existed? It would require serious planning and work, but his experience put him ahead of most. His mind settled on a goal: to build Nigeria’s first public driving range.
Financially, Bebe was committed. He boarded a 14-hour flight to Nigeria and tapped into his savings to buy six acres of property in the countryside of his home state Oyo, an ancient city 350 miles from the nation’s capital.
Using local labor, he rented a bulldozer and cleared dense vegetation. Sodding was done by hand, kneeling on the ground during hours of sunlight and using rounded wooden dowels to dig small holes for individual pieces of turf.
In the midst of construction, he ran into a problem. They still hadn’t found a water source for the nursery, so two workers would have to hike 250 yards to a nearby river to fill buckets with water and lug it back to wet the budding grass. They repeated the job each morning and night for months until a water source was struck 42 feet below the surface and a well could be installed.
After a period of oversight, Bebe returned to the U.S. It was a surreal time of achievement and pressure, but he knew he needed to return to caddying to recoup his bank account. After rounds, he would check his phone for progress updates from his workers on an app that doesn’t charge international fees.
All the change was promising but worry also crept in – money was draining significantly. For guidance, he reached out to The R&A, an organization that arranges golf’s oldest championship, The Open, and governs golf worldwide. Part of the R&A’s duties include development and distributing substantial funds toward, “the promotion and progression of the sport in emerging golfing nations…on the provision of more public golf courses and improved practice facilities.”
The R&A responded with a crafted message affirming his plans, yet stated the budget was “far from unlimited,” and that his request would need to go through an affiliate organization.
Reluctantly he wrote to the Nigerian Golf Federation, an organization that touted themselves for developing golf in Nigeria. The organization also claimed golf was a, “flourishing sport” in the country. Bebe however, had seen little advancement and viewed the board members as a corrupt group that provided inadequate support and transparency for those outside its circle.
As he expected, his request for funding was denied.
Hovering at a low point, he recognized the problems he faced weren’t unique, but similar to other institutionalized systems in Nigeria designed to keep the poor majority out. He couldn’t stomach the thought of asking for handouts from the few who knew about his passion project, which only made it more surprising when donations started to arrive.
Gloves, balls, and other small items trickled in, followed by large shipments of unwanted library chairs, 50 sets of junior clubs, 70 pairs of used golf shoes, turf hitting mats and club handle grips. Box after box arrived from the U.S., addressed from former players, friends and colleagues who learned about his mission and wanted to help.
To understand the process of transformation, just look at Bebe’s phone. That’s where he keeps track of what is now called, “Bebe’s golf ranch.” In one photo, he crouches, smiling with two workers over freshly poured cement, in another, a one-armed man is painting vibrant murals on the walls surrounding a putting course. In the last photo, a group of public-school students soak in their first glimpse of golf as Bebe demonstrates how to chip a ball.
“They come around from all the neighborhoods. They’re just kids on the streets, they come, they flock, they play. Some have no shoes, but they still come out because they’re curious,” Bebe said. “Golf might be the escape for those kids.”
The ranch is a different kind of golf experience with some unique features added. Two horses rest under a wooden shack, a special gift Bebe bought on his 33rd birthday. “The horses are for the kids or parents that aren’t interested in golf. If a mom brings three kids to the ranch and one doesn’t want to golf, he/she can ride the horse while the others practice.”
Two teaching professionals have been hired and Bebe has instituted a system where children can play for free with proof of excellent academic performance. He regularly visits public schools in nearby villages, where overcrowding and poor conditions are common, to lead golf clinics and encourage students to stop by the ranch.
What was meant to be a simple golf practice range has transformed into a place of community and self-worth.
Just as gratifying as the scenes of balls whizzing through the air are the symbols of hope built into the grounds. Carved into the well are the names of four players Bebe caddied for. They knew about his plan early on and supported it. A reminder of the people who fueled his field of dreams.
“When I see their names on the well, I can say thank you, in my heart,” he said. “And the kids who use the well will always know those names.”
The ranch was a culmination of Bebe’s life. An unlikely path of discovery steered by a chance encounter with golf. For all the promise America provided, it was the people along the way, a high school golf coach who reached out to an immigrant student, the veteran caddie who brought a stranger into his inner circle, the tour player who rejected his status to sit with a new face and generous strangers who supported a faraway radical idea. His community had prepared him to carry more than golf clubs on his back.
Now, Bebe spends most of his time at his ranch. When asked if he’ll serve hotdogs anytime soon, he smiles and says if he does, the place might not be able to handle the capacity of kids lining up.
“Golf is my passion,” he said. “That’s all I do. I wish I could do something else, but it’s the only thing I know.
(For more information on Bebe’s golf school in Nigeria, click here)
American Airlines News – Field of dreams: A caddie’s journey to build Nigeria’s first public golf range