International Management Group (IMG)

Posted on December 15, 2010 at 1:00 PM

Ben Taylor, Bernhard Technical Training Manager, brings us his experiences from a recent installation and training exercise in… Nigeria!

When I first found out that I was going to Nigeria, I had mixed feelings. Nigeria is a country my father had lived in years ago whilst working for BP. For this reason I wanted to see the country, but I was a little worried. The reason my father had left was due to civil war breaking out. Indeed, his exit was rather unconventional. He “escaped” down the Niger River in a canoe at the breakout of the Biafra war.

I hadn’t heard of Nigeria being a huge golfing nation and when I looked in to how many courses there were, there turned out to be 8 of various shapes and sizes. Where I was heading was Ibom Golf Club, in the south of the country in the notorious Akwa Ibom state.

Akwa Ibom has become well known, but for the wrong reasons. It’s here that many of the oil companies dig for black gold, with the region producing nearly 2 million barrels per day. This has bought much anger to the local people, anger which has turned into serious and normally violent crime. Kidnappings have become a daily occurrence. Militants taking western oil company workers hostage and demanding huge sums of money for their release. Although I wasn’t going to be there working for an oil company but for a company training users on grinders, the thought of what might happen, didn’t leave my mind all week!

Due to the impending BA strike, my route out was via Frankfurt and then on to Abuja, Nigeria’s capital. I was met at the airport by George Petkov, a Bulgarian who has been working in Africa for some 22 years. George works for Jardin which is a landscaping company started 25 years ago by an Argentinean Orlando Modesti. The company design, build and maintain landscaped areas across Nigeria. The company has its own huge nurseries which supply all the plants and trees needed for its projects and contracts. One of their largest contracts is the golf club which lies some 300 miles south of Abuja, close to a town called Uyo.

My first night was spent in a guest house in Abuja, which belongs to Jardin. After flicking through the cable channels a welcome friend was discovered - BBC World News.

The next day sees me fly down to Uyo, accompanied by George. After the hassle free hour long flight, we are collected at the airport by another Jardin worker who whisks us off to the golf course some 25 miles away. I have been in a car in Africa before, but one thing you never get used to is the traffic. There is certainly no highway code here! It appears to me that whoever is the bravest has the right of way. George asks me if I know what the horn sounding means in Africa? He tells me it means “I am not going to stop!”

It becomes very apparent that we are not going to be stopping much.

After the relaxing journey, we arrive at the course. The golf club is part of a huge hotel complex which is run by Le Meridien. The whole site is situated in the centre of the Nigerian rain forest, and is simply breathtaking. It soon becomes very clear why the resort has a 5 star rating. The club is run by the International Management Group (IMG), with Jardin being contracted to maintain the course. I’m first taken down to the maintenance area, where I’m welcomed by the course manager. To my surprise, Graham Whylie is not only Irish, but as I find out later, a fellow BIGGA member. Graham is a veteran of working in Nigeria, having been out there for some 11 years, having worked at 2 other courses previously before taking up the role as manager here. He began his career working in Northern Ireland and at Gleneagles Hotel, before heading to Nigeria in 2000.

We take a look around the maintenance area so I can inspect the recent delivery of Graham’s new grinders, which are already situated and wired into a new purpose built grinding room, which to my amazement and relief is fully air conditioned. I left the UK with patches of snow still on the ground; here the temperature is nudging just above the 30 degree mark. I’m told by Graham that this is still cool compared to their summer when the temperature is always in the late 30’s. This is accompanied during the “rainy” season by water and lots of it. Uyo gets over 100 inches of it a year!

Graham then invites me to take a drive with him around the course, so we jump in his pick-up and head off. The first thing that surprises me is just how green everything is. Having seen the surrounding landscape from the air and felt the intense heat, it’s hard to see how greens could survive here. The explanation comes when we visit the edge of the course though which passes a huge freshwater estuary some 50 meters wide which holds as much fresh water as the course ever needs which is pumped around the course by 3 huge generator driven pumps.

Next we stop to have a closer look at a couple of greens. They’re absolutely perfect, full coverage with not a single area of dry patch or disease. When constructed, they were turfed with paspalum. Very expensive paspalum which was shipped over from the US inside refrigerated 40ft containers. They are cut every day by hand, with the height varying between 2.5 & 3.5mm I can see that the greens have just been fertilized with a very large granular fertilizer. Graham explains that this is a local Nigerian fertilizer which is used in agriculture. The reason he’s using it is simple. It’s the only fertilizer available to him. This is a scenario which is repeated with all the essentials needed for the course. Products are simply not available in Nigeria, although the club are currently working hard to source supplies from the UK. The problem also exists when it come to machinery for the course. With no manufacturer having a distributor in Nigeria, machinery is sourced from other countries. Getting parts here can be difficult to say the least.

As we continue around the course, “welcome to the jungle” plays on the trucks radio. We both have a little chuckle to ourselves as no song could have been more apt. This leads to questions about the surrounding rainforest and its inhabitants. Graham tells of sightings on the course of monkeys, parrots and other creatures. He tells me the story of the time he was pruning a tree which was over hanging a green. As he began cutting branches, he was faced by a less friendly resident in the form of a 7 foot black mamba. While he’s telling me, I wind the window up a bit more and keep my hands firmly inside the truck.

As we head back, I meet some of the staff who work on the course. There are a lot of staff under Graham, approximately 50 people including 1 grounds/operator supervisor, 1 irrigation technician, 2 mechanics, 2 store persons, 1 fuel attendant, 1 time keeper, 1 estate landscape supervisor, 1 security supervisor, 1 secretary, 1 accountant, 1 electrician, 1 welder, 1 auto electrician. 1 expatriate mechanical engineer, Nick (Bulgarian)! The club also employ some 30 local staff who reside in the villages surrounding the course, hidden in the forest. Today they are tidying up the trees around the course. I’m amazed to see people climbing up trees which are some 60 ft tall, whilst holding a 2 ft machete without the need for a rope!

We finish the day by taking a tour around the magnificent hotel and I end up helping Graham doing exactly what an Irishman should be doing on St Patricks day. Enjoying a pint of Guinness, whilst relaxing in the poolside bar.

The next day sees an early start as we have a long day of installation training on the new grinders. The session is a truly multi national event, with an Englishman teaching 2 Bulgarians, 2 Nigerians and an Irishman. As we are grinding, Graham explains how delighted he is to finally have grinders. In a country that has no dealers and no mobile grinding service, the only way to get sharp cutting units previously was to replace the cylinders! This had been the only solution, but this had proven to be a somewhat expensive way of doing things! I also learn that Graham has previous use with Bernhard grinders as both clubs he has worked on in Nigeria also have them, but he admits that he thinks they are probably between 25 and 30 years old, but still working fine!

We spend the whole day grinding everything we can get our hands on and also showing the technicians how to correctly set the cutting units after grinding. The whole team are impressed with the quality of the grind and they’re happy knowing the units are razor sharp again. They know that this will be a massive improvement for them out on the course. After a long day, we head back to the pool for a well earned bite to eat.

On my last day, I arrive early at the maintenance compound to hear the sound of the grinders already running. The crew can’t wait to show me how many units they have already ground and they take it in turns to show me how well they have set them and just how well they are cutting. Graham and I take one last trip around the course to take some pictures, stopping off on the way to have a look at the clubs yacht club and heliport. I then say my farewells and head back to the airport for my flight back to Abuja and then on home.

Ibom golf club has to be one of the genuine hidden gems in the golf course world. The setting is magnificent. I was taken up to the highest point on the course and all you can see for 360 degrees is rain forest and it goes right out to the horizon. The course layout is superb, with many natural hazards. The greens are in fantastic shape and possible the largest I have seen anywhere in the world.

I have to admit, I saw no evidence of Nigeria’s on going problems, but they do exist. I only hope that one day, they do calm down enough so that people will travel to see what I believe to be one of the most beautiful and picturesque golf courses on the planet.

I’d like to thank Graham, George and Orlando from Jardin and Cliff Freidman from IMG for their hospitality and also for their help in dealing with a very nervous Englishman.