Ryan Cairns is proof that once Africa gets into your blood the whole continent is your home, writes GARY LEMKE in Compleat Golfer.
You may have never heard of him, but Norwegian Gunnar Garfors has visited every country in the world and has subsequently made a career out of sharing feedback on his experiences.
He has also written extensively about the world’s least-visited countries, with the tiny island north-east of Australia, Naura, top of that list. It is followed by Somalia, Tivalu, Marshall Islands and Equatorial Guinea.
Of the latter, Garfors writes about the central African country: ‘It is ruled by a dictator, the distribution of the massive oil wealth is extremely unequal and it has one of the world’s worst human rights track records.’
It’s not exactly a complimentary view and another shining example of the perception of Africa among a global audience. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer, is how they put it.
However, like many countries in Africa, there are first-world elements that take the breath away. Equatorial Guinea is no different in that regard and perhaps endorses the view that everyone has
an opinion and views aren’t universal.
Sunshine Tour professional Cairns has visited the west African country and guess what? He’d happily do so again, and again.
The 3e Actuaries Equatorial Guinea Open, at the Presidential Golf Course in Mongomo, is into its fifth year. Cairns says: ‘Honestly, it’s one of my favourite events of the year. They lay out the red carpet for you. It is backed by the government and the overall prize money is $150 000 for a field of 60 men and another $150 000 for the 40 women.
‘I shared a room with Zambian pro Madalitso Muthiya and stayed in a six- star hotel. At any given moment you can be forgiven for thinking you’re in Japan or Dubai.
‘There are three golf courses and they are beautifully kept; the conditions have that tropical feel, as if you’re in Asia. The courses are quite a challenge, with grainy grass. Last year I finished sixth [with a one-under-par total of 287; fellow Sunshine Tour pro James Kamte was 15th]. I earned around R65k and for once there were no travel expenses! The impressive Nigerian businessman Olawale Opayinka is the tournament host. It’s a real eye-opener.’
Cairns is under no illusions as to how tough it is to make a living as a professional golfer. In nine Sunshine Tour events in 2017-18 he has earned R62 000 in prize money to sit 76th on the Order of Merit. In the previous season he played 24 events and placed 79th on the list.
‘A couple of years ago I had a three-footer for par on the last hole to make the cut at the Joburg Open. Now that is pressure and it’s probably easier to have that putt to win a tournament. Guess what? I didn’t even shave the hole.
‘There are a few guys with sponsors, which makes it easier for them, but for 97% of us, it’s a struggle. It’s tough because you need to make R180 000 a year even before you’ve paid your rent, travelling costs or anything else,’ explains Cairns.
There is a refreshing honesty about the 33-year-old, who plays out of Royal Harare Golf Club. He’s a winner on the Sunshine Tour and knows he has the ability to shoot low, with a final-round 62 to win the Vodacom Origins – Simola in 2012 to prove it.
‘In 2018 I will aim to play 12 to 15 events on the Sunshine Tour and start cashing some bigger cheques again. But I’ve been busy setting up a few business ventures because I know how tough it is to make a living from Tour earnings alone.’
At the time of the interview Cairns had hoped to be in Mauritius for the AfrAsia Bank Open, but instead he was preparing to sing at a mate’s Christmas party.
‘The deal was that if I didn’t qualify for Mauritius, I’d perform for him for free, although obviously that wasn’t my plan!’
However, it was the guitar that led to meeting his wife Engelize. ‘I was at a place in Bedfordview, on a blind date with this beautiful Afrikaans girl in 2015. After a couple of hours she asked me if I could get my guitar out of the car and play a song for her in the restaurant. I asked the manager if that would be OK, adding that I’m no Ed Sheeran, but I think I can hold my own. Three songs into my “impromptu set”, Engelize responded by saying, “If you can play a Snow Patrol song that’s not ‘Chasing Cars’, I will marry you tomorrow.”
‘With only one other Snow Patrol song in my limited repertoire, I took a deep breath, loaded it up and started strumming.’
They got married at Cairns’ family home in Australia six months later.
Grass doesn’t grow under Cairns’ feet and he’s a real man of the African soil. Apart from Equatorial Guinea, he has travelled to more African countries to play golf than most other pros on the local Tour.
Those other countries include South Africa, Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Zambia, Namibia, Kenya and Tanzania, where he won his last tournament late in 2017. ‘Tanzania has wildlife second to none,’ he enthuses, which is so typical of him to talk about the life experience as opposed to the victory on the golf course. After all, when the sun sets, what is more important: golf or life memories?
‘When we went to get into the car to go to the course we were surrounded by animals, like zebra and wildebeest. They were right there, simply an amazing feeling. I’m African and if you want to stereotype me, that’s fine. I’m down to earth, I love the outdoors, the bush and fishing.
‘Zimbabwe is my home, but under [President] Mugabe things became bad and I moved to Australia with my family in 2002, before a move to South Africa for the start of my Sunshine Tour career in 2007. And yes, when news came of him being removed from power I celebrated along with millions of other Zimbos.
‘Royal Harare Golf Cub hosts the Zimbabwe Open on the Sunshine Tour and you can ask all the pros, I’m sure they’ll also tell you it has the best greens we play on anywhere. And that includes Leopard Creek or Fancourt. For the tournament the greens run at around 13 on the stimpmeter, and outside the tournament they are around 10 or 11.’
African by heart, Zimbabwean by blood, Cairns has been returning ‘home’ a little more frequently of late.
‘I’ve been working hard on getting some business opportunities off the ground over the past year or so. Most notably, we are taking The Pro Shop franchise from SA into Zimbabwe early in 2018 and have signed a 10-year lease at Royal Harare Golf Club as our venue. The whole project is exciting as I’m partnered by my dad and two close family friends. The shop will be some 340m2 and we’re getting things up and running in January.
‘I’ve got a bunch of business stuff on the boil, including an elite golf academy opening at Royal Harare Golf Club in the first half of 2018, a 60-day trial with KFC for a concept created in a joint venture with other partners based in Centurion, and perhaps you will have seen whenever you visit a Pro Shop store in South Africa, there is a kiosk, where we run an innovative competition with Garmin and Titleist.’
With lucrative sponsors hard to come by for the majority of local professionals, Cairns has a deal with Maui Motorhomes, whereby he is gifted a four-seater camper van to travel to tournaments that take him to various parts of South Africa.
‘A couple of years ago I sent Maui an email. I Googled motor-home rentals in South Africa and they came up. I told them it was quite a popular way to travel in America for some of the players, like Jason Day, for example, and I asked them what they would think about a pro on the local Tour doing that. They asked me to go and see them, so the next day, I went in, expecting to do a pitch and they said, “The deal is done, here are the keys!”’
Cairns is a good example that there’s more to modern golfers than a metronomic approach that gets them from tee to green and then back to the driving range and off to their hotels, only to do it all again the following day. ‘There’s a perception that all us guys on Tour are robots hiding behind dark glasses. That’s not the case. A guy like MJ Viljoen, for example, will leave you crying with laughter off the course.’
For Cairns, he’s proven he’s out there for the life experience, while fully aware that his future financial security isn’t about hoping to get lucky in one big professional tournament. That might, or might not happen, but he’s content.
‘This is Africa,’ he might say. ‘And nothing beats being an African.’
CAIRNS BY NUMBERS
14 – Number of consecutive cuts
made on the Sunshine Tour
16 – Times he has finished in the top 10 on the Sunshine Tour leaderboard
37 – Best Order of Merit finish, on the 2013 Sunshine Tour
62 – Lowest round on the Sunshine Tour, at the Vodacom Origins – Simola in 2012
R1.8m – Career prize money earned in rands on the Sunshine Tour
– This article first appeared in the January issue of Compleat Golfer