KAMPALA- If you missed action on the final day of the 75th Tusker Malt Uganda Open Amateur Championship on Saturday, then you have never watched any golf competition in Uganda. A birdie, birdie and birdie finish, yes three in a row, for new champion Ronald Rugumayo in a three-hole playoff on No.12, 17 and 18 was all he needed to dethrone holder and two-time winner Ronald Otile by three strokes. It was that nice. Simply sweet! The gallery duly responded by roaring in unison after Rugumayo’s final three-metre putt – which had been a hallmark of his game on the final day.
“I have won many things in golf over the years,” said the Tooro-based golfer, who made a Uganda Open debut in 2010, soon after receiving his trophy from Uganda Golf Union (UGU) president Johnson Omolo. “But this victory is not just a win, it is a ‘Major’ triumph. It is what makes you a legend.”
But Rugumayo deserves more than a round of applause. With the options needle-thin and very limited, a standing ovation will do – for now – for the new king of amateur golf in Uganda.
The 25-year-old scratch golfer has always belonged to this elite rota of distinguished gentlemen that are on the championship’s Hall of Fame.
Over his eight appearances at the most coveted golfing showpiece in Uganda, Rugumayo had thrice been in the final day’s pressure group only for a fist of jittery moments to put paid to his glory chances.
But on Saturday, he wore a face of determination and reloaded his guns for one final assault on the enemy. He went toe-to-toe with Otile, shooting birdie for birdie and exchanging the pars and bogeys over the 18 holes.
At one time, he enjoyed a two-shot lead but the never-say-die attitude of Otile resurfaced, as witnessed two years ago when he won the Professionals Open, with a series of birdies on the back nine on par-4 No.14 and par-3 No.17 to draw level as both finished with competitive rounds of level-par 72.
Both had finished on 299 gross apiece after four rounds but the build-up was a mouth-watering spectacle that provided a Hollywood climax with the three-hole play-off. Otile and his caddie Douglas Mugisha will concur it was Rugumayo’s moment to bask in glory. Over the four days, Otile’s Day Two score of 79, in particular, with a triple-bogey on par-4 No.15 ‘seemed’ to have kept ‘struggling’ Rugumayo interested.
Teeing-off Day Three on Friday, Rugumayo was placed 27th only to surge with a round of three-under-par 69, joining Otile, Roddell Gaita, Kenyan Samuel Njoroge and Daniel Baguma atop the leader board with a similar aggregate of 227.
In the final day pressure group with soft-spoken Gaita and Njoroge, Otile and Rugumayo set the tone and shared the limelight by exchanging the lead on the par-3 No.9 when they carded bogey and birdie in turn.
But they were back on level on par-4 Hole No.10 when Otile returned par, only to be countered by a double-bogey from Rugumayo.
A birdie on par-3 No.11 saw Rugumayo lead again by a stroke and when his par4 No.12 tee-box hit went to the trench, he dropped for safety and managed to pull off a par-saving putt. However, big-hitting Otile nicked a birdie on the par-5 No.13 to level again, The South Africa-based star, however, nearly bottled it with a double-bogey on treacherous No.15, that is fittingly named Luwero Triangle, to trail by two.
But he didn’t go away. The gallery urged him with loud moans of ‘C’mon Otile, C’mon Champion’, and he didn’t disappoint as he trimmed that lead over the next two holes with an authoritative par and birdie on No.16 and 17 respectively. Both Tooro Golf Club-bred title contenders were level going onto the final.
With an insurmountable amount of pressure in the air, both struggled to master the 18th with the gallery on its tiptoes. Rugumayo was already sure for his bogey on the par-4 hole but it was Otile who unleashed a curving putt for his bogey that ensured the playoff.
Play-off memories of the 2014 battle between eventual winner Deus Kitata and Adolf Muhumuza were triggered going back to No.12.
Here, Rugumayo shed some skin with the best golf ever witnessed anywhere in a playoff. The green lights, like his polo t-shirt and shoes he was donning, like on M1 Highway were on Rugumayo as he had saved best for last.
Hole one of the playoff (No.12), he sank a birdie, Otile managed par. Hole two (No.17), Otile drew first blood with his tee-shot staying less than a meter from the pin. He earned his birdie but Rugumayo ended his thought that he had levelled by nailing a six-meter putt for birdie which sent the packed-to-the-rafters gallery at Kitante into a frenzy.
“My strongest weapon which is chip and putt was on fire,” Rugumayo would react later. “That is when I knew he had won,” Otile said while reminiscing the moment Rugumayo sank a jaw-dropping birdie on No.17.
On the third playoff hole (No.18), Otile was left in trouble as he landed into the lower bunker guarding the green. It left him needing to play for at best a bogey. The stage was left for Rugumayo to put a cusp to arguably the greatest Open ever, with a third successive birdie to seal a heroic triumph.
As both shared bare hugs like Siamese twins, Rugumayo was left in his own world as he kissed the air before the Tooro players carried him shoulder high to the club house like a newly anointed king. “The first time of everything is always special and sweet. This is sweeter than sweet,” Rugumayo, would say later, similarly to a teenager whose eyes continuously pop out of the socket on his first visit to a discotheque. The gallery will be itching for such riveting action when the 12th Uganda Professionals Open takes center-stage next week.