What teed off as a chance encounter with golf has turned into a relentless pursuit of a dream for 16-year-old Iyene Essien as she makes the next stop on her road to becoming Nigeria’s second pro golfer on tour.
Introduction To Golf
Iyene was introduced to golf 11 years ago while taking a stroll with her dad and she’s been hooked ever since like a fish on natural bait.
“I started playing golf at the age of five after an encounter with a boy who was learning the game at the IBB International Golf and Country Club in Abuja. My dad saw how excited I was and decided to hook me up with a coach, some clubs, as well as balls and I have not looked back since,” she said.
Although born in New York City, Iyene started representing Nigeria barely into her teens and it’s no surprise she’s the number 1 ranked junior female golfer in the country having bagged numerous titles along the way.
“My first competition for Nigeria was at the USKids World Championship when I was 11 years old, and I totally enjoyed the thrill. I loved the fact that I was representing my country and that I was able to compete internationally,” said Iyene as she recalled the event fondly.
Since then, she’s gone on to feature in the All-Africa Junior Challenge in Morocco, SA Kids Junior Open in Gauteng, and many more. On the local scene, the 16-year-old has embraced stiffer competition as she featured in the 2019 Nigeria Ladies Open where she placed 10th out of 150 competitors.
Taft School Experience
Not satisfied with just dominating at junior/amateur level on the local scene, Iyene has made up her mind pretty early to become a professional golfer which has now taken her to the next stop of her development process. In 2021, she enrolled at the prestigious Taft School in Watertown, Connecticut, USA where she is a member of the Girls’ Varsity golf team.
“Taft has been an entirely different experience for me, she says. It has taught me to be independent and responsible. It also taught me that proper time management helps as a student-athlete in navigating between academics and sport while maintaining top grades. I have made improvements in my mentality as an athlete,” she added.
She’s Got Game
Despite her tender age, Iyene appears to have impressed her school coach Ginger O’Shea with her progress both on and off the golf course.
“Iyene has transitioned remarkably well here as a student-athlete. She has won 7 of her team matches while usually competing against much older girls who are committed to attending Division 1 Colleges and Universities,” said O’Shea. “She has a natural swing with tremendous power as well as balance for someone so petite and can only get better. This is really fantastic.”
By all accounts, Iyene’s talent is not in doubt, but this is only a small part of the equation of transitioning from a top junior golfer to the highest level of the sport.
There is no denying that golf is an expensive sport and a country like South Korea which invests heavily in its junior talents produced the most elite players while Nigeria with little to no investment produced the least.
Consequently, Nigeria has only 1-woman pro golfer on the Ladies European Tour in Georgia Oboh and just like Ms Oboh, Iyene has been lucky to have supportive parents who have been investing in her but there is only so much they can do in their personal capacity which she makes very clear.
“My parents have supported me a lot in my career by investing a lot of time, effort and money but I need more external financial support,” said Iyene. “Golf is a very expensive sport which involves huge financial resources to pay for flights, hotels, car rentals, equipment replacement, employing swing, putting and mental coaches.”
To buttress the funding issue, Iyene’s parents were still scrambling to raise funds to attend upcoming events when this piece was written.
The 2022 Youth Olympics would have been a great platform to showcase her improved game but with the competition now postponed until 2026 when she will no longer be eligible, Iyene already has her eyes set on other events.
“I have been invited to represent Nigeria at The R&A Junior Golf Championship in Monifieth, Scotland from July 11-13, 2022. This tournament assembles all the best under-16 junior golfers from many top golfing countries so I’m really looking forward to testing myself against the best in my age category.
“I am also looking to play at The Kerry Cup in Waterville, Ireland from July the 3rd to the 8th, 2022, and then the English Girls’ Amateur Stroke Play Championship from July the 19th to the 21st, 2022,” she said.
For someone still so young, Iyene already has her short-, medium-, and long-term goals clearly mapped out. “I am hoping to get recruited into one of the top colleges to play golf on scholarship while I get my University degree in Electrical Engineering with specialisation in Artificial Intelligence and Robotics. Afterwards, I’ll try my best to become a professional golfer,” she added.
Although the odds might be long considering the challenges, there is every indication that Iyene will be swinging for the fences until her dreams become reality.