When Gary Poupenneau was a small boy he was was intrigued by the nine-hole golf course near to his family home on the largest Seychelles island of Mahe.
The manufactured landscape, the swings and the arc of the ball fascinated him. In time he would start to caddie at the club, but actually hitting shots himself was a privilege beyond his means.
He and his friends would fashion clubs from the branches of the tropical trees which lined the holes and hit balls they had found in the rough or ones they fashioned from the fruit which fell from those same trees.
Gary was falling in love with this peculiar game and discovering that far, far away it was played by millions, not hundreds, of people. He also learned that some of them were even employed to play the game. What a life that seemed, what an opportunity, yet one he could never imagine would ever be a reality in his own country – a small archipelago of 115 islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean, over one thousand miles from any major land mass.
The real Indian Ocean
When I first met Gary five years ago, on my first visit to the Seychelles, I explained to him that this was not a unique experience for me because I had played golf in the north of the Indian Ocean.
“Where?” he asked.
“Sri Lanka,” I answered.
“That’s not the Indian Ocean,” he replied.
“Isn’t it?” I queried. Gary’s frown turned quickly into a smile as he shook his head.
“Okay,” I countered, “I’ve also played on the eastern edge of the Indian Ocean.”
“Perth is in Australia,” Gary deadpanned, “and that’s not the Indian Ocean.”
“I’ve also played on the western edge of the Indian Ocean,” I persisted.
“That’s in Africa,” Gary replied.
“Yeah, yeah, all right, I get it, and it’s not the Indian Ocean.”
Gary laughed loudly and slapped me on the back. I had just learned that the Indian Ocean islands – the Maldives, the Seychelles, Madagascar, Mauritius and Reunion – possess a proud collective identity and the furthest fringes of their huge ocean is not part of it.
I had also started to really like the Seychellois people and Gary in particular.
From the Seychelles to St. Andrews and back
On Sunday evenings the caddies at that nine-hole course on Mahe began to realize that they had the course to themselves and so began the process of taking their rough-and-ready game to the course itself.
Gary excelled among his friends. In time he would represent his nation in a tournament for small nation islands in Vanuatu (plum in the middle of the Pacific Ocean), he also shared a driving range with Ian Poulter at the Mauritius Open, and he traveled to Scotland for a Commonwealth event, experiencing St. Andrews and links golf for the first time.
What did he make of the home of golf?
“Man,” he said, shivering at the mere memory. “It was pretty cold.”
Early in the 21st century the Constance Lemuria hotel on Praslin, the second biggest island in the Seychelles, built an 18-hole golf course. In its early days Gary had a job interview there, but it clashed with an appointment he couldn’t avoid at home and he missed out on the job.
He persisted and eventually started to work at the course. In time he would become Assistant Professional, then Professional and, in 2011, the Golf Manager. The small boy’s dreams had been fulfilled, but the journey was far from over.
From idea to conception to a rainy reality
That same year Tom Lehman, the 1996 Open Champion and former world No. 1, competed in Mauritius at the MCB Tour Championship, the season-ending tournament on the Staysure Tour (the European senior circuit). He won it and afterwards traveled north. Constance Belle Mare Plage had hosted his win, and it was suggested he try out the hotel chain’s course in the Seychelles.
Afterwards he threw out an idea that one day it might host an event the week after Mauritius. It took some time — there was an immense amount of co-ordination required between the Seychelles Tourist Board, the hotel chain, the main sponsor MCB and the Tour itself — but seven years later that is exactly what happened.
Just like Gary, the course itself needed to take a journey. New tee boxes were built, holes were relocated, the 10th hole gained an entirely new putting surface, the grass was improved, the greens were transformed.
The small boy who gazed at this strange sport 30 years ago was now in charge of producing a track that last week welcomed two major champions (both former world number ones), seven Ryder Cup stars and the Asian Tour’s record winner.
And then, on the eve of the tournament, the heavens opened. It poured, and it poured, and it poured some more. Next morning, just as the field prepared to leave the beach-view breakfast room, it started to pour again.
It looked bleak, but by 2:30 p.m. Gary and his team of green keepers had the first 12 holes of the course in a fit state for play. It was not the bow everyone had dreamed of, but it was an exercise in unity, enthusiasm and dedication.
By Sunday afternoon the weather was behaving and the entire course had been open for the final two rounds. Those first 12 holes resemble Waialae, annual host of the PGA Tour’s Sony Open in Hawaii, in that they lie on flat ground by the ocean. They are a technical and tropical test between trees, water hazards and huge boulders.
The final six holes are more undulating, like Kapalua’s Plantation Course, where the Sentry Tournament of Champions is played. They climb one hill, drop dramatically from it, sneak through jungle to another hill, climb that and then descend again with a stunning tee shot that needs to find a ribbon of fairway between more water and more jungle.
The latter stretch would prove decisive. Roger Chapman, winner of both the Senior PGA Championship and U.S. Senior Open in 2012, and Phillip Price, who toppled Phil Mickelson in the 2002 Ryder Cup, both thrived on the challenge. In contrast Lehman and Miguel Angel Martin, tied for the lead playing the last, wilted. In the playoff which followed Chapman made eagle 3 at the 18th to claim the inaugural MCB Tour Championship–Seychelles.
A moment of levity
In Round 1, Chapman’s caddie had failed to show, and a volunteer stepped bravely into the breach. He was an enthusiastic fellow, but he had never seen a golf course in his life and Chapman laughed, “He actually pulled the trolley across the green!”
When Gary heard of this he narrowed his eyes and started looking for a replacement. The man he found, said Chapman, “Did a great job and was so enthusiastic.”
Who better to find the winner’s caddie than the man who started his golfing story carrying bags himself?