The airline lost his clubs, his Detroit Airbnb was a dump — and Senegal golfer can't stop smiling

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — These days, given the supply-chain issues, if you or I wanted to buy some custom-fitted golf clubs, the quoted wait time would be weeks — and possibly even months.

And the actual wait time, almost certainly, would be longer.

So, Samba Niang knows he's a fortunate man. He got his clubs in less than 24 hours this week, thanks to some fast acting by the folks at the Rocket Mortgage Classic, Callaway and Carl's Golfland, who made sure the biggest opportunity, by far, of Niang's golfing career wasn't ruined by the ongoing baggage problems at the Paris airport. Paris. That's where Niang's clubs are, and have been for nearly a week.

Senegal's Samba Niang will be teeing it up in the John Shippen tournament, hoping to earn an exemption into the Rocket Mortgage Classic.

"I couldn't believe it," Niang said on a sunny Friday afternoon at Detroit Golf Club, taking a break from practicing his putting (with, of course, a new putter). "What's going on here?

"But, I'm a big believer in just kind of accepting what the universe kind of puts up. I mean, I always look at the positives with everything that happens. I was freaked out, for sure, but in the back of my mind, OK, there must be a reason for this. Maybe it's just a great story we're gonna have to tell after the tournament."

Or, how about before the tournament.

Niang, of Senegal in West Africa, is one of 22 golfers who will compete in the second John Shippen National Golf Invitational, founded last year to create additional opportunities for golfers of color in a sport that greatly lacks diversity. The 36-hole tournament starts Saturday and finishes Sunday, with the winner receiving an exemption into next week's Rocket Mortgage Classic, Detroit's first and only PGA Tour stop.

Niang has a fine golfing resume for a golfer from West Africa, where he's won 23 times as a professional. He's played regularly on The Sunshine Tour, in South Africa and East Africa.

But he's never had an opportunity like this week — a week that, frankly, already has been a wild ride.

"And I haven't even teed off yet!" he said with a laugh. He laughs a lot, and smiles always. Good thing.

Niang, 33, started his journey to Detroit last Friday night, when he flew from Dakar, Senegal, to Paris, where he landed early Saturday morning. He had a four-hour layover there — "Enough time to put (the clubs) on the plane," he points out — and then flew to Washington, D.C., arriving Saturday afternoon.

It was in D.C. that he first noticed his clubs were missing. They weren't on the carousel, or in the oversize-baggage area. He asked this person, that person, and finally was told the clubs remained in Paris.

That happens. It happened to Niang once when traveling to Thailand. He got his clubs a few days later. So, no need to panic yet. From D.C., he flew to Atlanta, where he was to spend a little time with some family, arriving there Saturday night.

Then, on Monday, he made the flight to Detroit, arriving midday — hopeful that his clubs beat him to DTW.

Swing and miss. And now, it was time to worry.

The replacements

His first call was to Sommer Woods, chief inclusion officer at Woods & Watts Effect, and founder of the Shippen. She then called Jason Langwell, executive director of the Rocket Mortgage Classic. And he called his contacts at TaylorMade and Callaway in California — that call was placed early in the morning, Eastern time — and they then coordinated with Casey Baker at Carl's Golfland in Bloomfield Township.

"You ask what happens during the week" before the tournament, Langwell said with a chuckle, "and it's a bunch of things like that."

Carl's got Niang into the shop Wednesday and started the multi-hour fitting process for irons, and he was back Thursday getting fitted for his woods and a putter.

By noon Thursday, he had his new arsenal. It's not the exact same bag that's MIA in Paris. He played all TaylorMade, except for a 2-iron and 3-wood, which were Nike, and a putter, which was Ping. For this week, he's been hooked up with TaylorMade woods (a Stealth driver instead of the SIM, which he normally plays) and Callaway irons, except for his trusty 2 iron, which is Srixon, and three wedges, which are Vokey (Titleist). Niang still will putt with a Ping putter.

Niang was going to try a round with the clubs Thursday afternoon at Shepherd's Hollow Golf Club in Clarkston, but decided to just work out at Carl's, which has a tracking device. That's big, because Niang has noticed a little difference in the yardages he's hitting the new clubs, and he wanted to get that dialed in before teeing it up at the Shippen. Niang plays stiff shafts and Carl's was able to accommodate that preference, but these clubs are a little lighter.

He was out at Detroit Golf Club on Friday, ready to test his new sticks in a practice round.

"I had a friend who tried to have me borrow his clubs, and this and that, but it didn't work out," Niang said. Plan B was a miss. Plan C came in. Plan Carl's, as I like to call it. Carl's Golfland saved me on this one.

"I mean, it was amazing. It took less than a day to do all of that."

Niang always packs his golf shoes in his golf bag, but for some reason decided to put those in his luggage for this trip. Good thing. "I'd have to spend $300," Niang said, "that I don't have."

Another snag

Niang still is checking his email and text messages regularly, hoping for a miracle on his old clubs. Changing clubs is a big adjustment, let alone right before the biggest tournament of your life.

But it's all part of the journey, said Niang, whose club debacle hasn't been his only humorous tale of the week. He had booked his hotel starting Thursday, but figured he'd be able to check in Monday — he found out on the flight that the hotel was booked. So he quickly reserved three nights at an Airbnb not even 10 minutes from the golf course. The pictures looked nice.

That's why he was convinced the Uber driver was lost when he pulled into the neighborhood on Monday.

The outside of the house was falling apart. It looked nothing like the pictures. He double-checked the address. So did the Uber driver. Then Niang punched in the code that the owner had sent him. It worked.

"And the outside was just like the inside," Niang said. "Everything was kind of falling apart. There was no AC. No wifi. I had to fix the toilet because it wasn't flushing. My African side came out. We deal with that kind of issue all the time, so I opened it up to check it out and fixed it."

Niang had no choice but to stay there that night. He was exhausted. 

The next day, the people at the Shippen got him his courtesy call early ("that was a lifesaver"), allowing him to move to a new place. His cousin had a friend in the area with a house, and Niang stayed there the next two days before checking into his hotel Thursday.

Given his rosy outlook on just about everything, Niang didn't even bad-mouth the Airbnb owner, an out-of-towner who, get this, actually had the nerve to call him Tuesday and ask if he could stop by the house and set up the other room with clean sheets for the next guest that was arriving.

Niang actually did it.

"I don't think she came, though," Niang said, with a laugh.

'Make lemonade'

Niang has no idea when or if his clubs ever will show up again. He's supposed to give the loaner clubs back to Carl's at the end of his stay in Detroit, but he's got an Asian Tour event in Indonesia the week after the Rocket Mortgage Classic.

But not much of a worrier by nature — he credits his golf background for that; no matter how well you play, few things ever go exactly as planned — he'll deal with that later.

For now, it's the task at hand — and it's a big one. The Shippen awarded exemptions into LPGA tournaments in Grand Rapids and Midland this year (winner Sadena Parks made the cut in Midland), and now will give a coveted PGA Tour ticket to one man this weekend. The field is a mix of some of the best Black professionals and amateurs without tour status, including several with local ties — most notably Flint's Willie Mack III, 32, who was given a sponsor's exemption into last year's Rocket Mortgage Classic and made his first PGA Tour cut, finishing tied for 71st.

Also in the field are Marcus Byrd, 24, from Ann Arbor; Joe Hooks, 27, a Detroit native and Wayne State alum; Marcus Smith, 20, who plays at Eastern Michigan; and Troy Taylor II, 22, who plays at Michigan State. Defending Shippen winner Timothy O'Neal, 49, of Georgia, is playing again.

The Shippen is named after the country's first Black golf professional, and this fall will include a business summit for college and high-school students interested in getting into the golf business.

The Shippen pays for all players' expenses, including travel, lodging, food — and, in a pinch, even clubs.

"It's a great opportunity that they've given all of us here," Niang said. "Golf definitely lacks diversity; we've known that for a long time. And initiatives like this are definitely very welcomed. You know, there's just a big barrier, I mean financially especially, when it comes to professional golf for Black players, and players from Africa especially. Getting opportunities like this is life-changing."

And, as it turns out, quite memorable — if not ideal.

At least, not ideal, so far.

"Funny enough, I don't think things have gone wrong," Niang said. "Like, I'm a big believer in just kind of allowing the universe to do its own thing. You make your plans, but the universe has its own plans.

"You have to accept it and sometimes just go with whatever it gives you.

"Make lemonade."

Then he smiled — again — and went off to practice

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Twitter: @tonypaul1984