The demise of golf is just one of many concerns Nick Price and other Zimbabweans who are part of the Presidents Cup's International team have for their native land
Nick Price used to think he would retire to Zimbabwe after his playing career had ended, but he has given up that dream. Since 2000 he has only been back once to the country of his youth, the pain of seeing his homeland made unrecognizable by a ruthless dictator too much to bear.
"It's been so depressing since the land-grabbing started," says the Presidents Cup International team captain and former World No. 1. "Zimbabwe was successfully rebuilding interracial relationships, and the country was flourishing. Now, five million people [2008 figures] are starving. It's so sad, the most depressing thing I have ever seen."
Thirty-three years have passed since white-minority rule ended in what was formerly Rhodesia. There was great hope for the new, independent nation called Zimbabwe, which elected Robert Mugabe, a former opposition leader against the government of Ian Smith, as its prime minister in 1980. But especially in the last decade the landlocked southern African country, about the size of Montana, has been on the brink of collapse. The now-president Mugabe's land-reform program, intended to alter the ethnic balance of land ownership after more than a century of British colonization, has resulted in often brutal farm seizures and displaced wealth. Along with sanctions imposed by the United States and other countries that condemn Mugabe's policies, Zimbabwe's citizens, 98 percent of whom are black, have endured economic meltdown, hyperinflation and elections scarred by violence.
Accompanying this chaos has been the dismantling of one of the finest golf environments ever seen. In the 1960s and '70s, even amid political upheaval from minority rule that caused the United States to impose trade sanctions on Rhodesia, the country was a golf Camelot. Located along the northeast border of South Africa, it featured brilliant weather, a large number of courses with affordable fees and active junior programs that would, for a few golden years, produce a disproportionate number of the world's finest players.
Three-time major champion Price, now 56, as well as his assistant captains, Mark McNulty, 59, and Tony Johnstone, 57, were products of this time. So were Denis Watson and renowned instructor David Leadbetter. "The weather was so good that you were outdoors 365 days a year, so we played everything," recalls Price. "My brother [Tim] bought a bag of clubs, not a set, a bag, completely mixed clubs. People say there wasn't hickory around in 1965 -- there was in Rhodesia! We didn't have access to new equipment because of sanctions, so we made the most of everything we had."
Clockwise from top left: an empty Warren Hills car park; the 10th at Warren Hills; Price with spoils in 1974, a photo of happier days in Warren Hills' clubhouse. Photos: Barry Havenga
On the school holidays, parents and volunteers ran junior programs every day of the week at different courses. Johnstone would travel 275 miles north from Bulawayo to Salisbury (Harare) and stay with Price or Watson. "We were issued a golf passport, a small blue book that kept a record of your handicap," explains Price. "You were taught from a young age about the rules, how to keep a scorecard and the correct etiquette. And boy, did we make sure the course was looked after. You never walked past an unraked bunker, because the juniors would definitely be blamed."
"Your handicap changed every day, so each holiday you had new goals -- breaking 80, breaking par, breaking 70 -- anything to get better," adds McNulty. "In our era there were five or six juniors that were better than us, but they went different ways after school. Maybe they didn't have the drive or the goals we had in golf." Competition was fierce across the vast pool of junior talent, yet played in a friendly spirit. Young Rhodesians were taught to respect the game and its traditions.
"We were just having fun. Life was simple," Price says. "We didn't know about professional golf until our mid-teens, because there was no live golf on TV. A month after Tony Jacklin won the 1969 British Open, a 32-millimeter film arrived at Warren Hills, which we watched in the clubhouse. A friend of mine's father bought Arnold Palmer's golf record -- a double LP of instruction and illustrations. We all crammed around the record player to listen to it."
When Golf World visited Warren Hills at noon on the Wednesday that Price chose compatriot Brendon de Jonge for the International Team, it was hard to believe it is the same club where Price and Leadbetter honed their skills as teenagers. A deserted parking lot, crestfallen clubhouse and scruffy-looking course were open, yet there was not a golfer to be seen. Meanwhile, at Royal Harare, a course that Price redesigned in 1997, a full field of 120 golfers was playing in a corporate outing.
"Royal has gained members from other clubs in Harare that were struggling to survive," says general manager Ian Mathieson. "For the few that can afford it, golfers are status-driven and want to be a member at a top club. We have 1,400 members who pay $900 annual subscription, which includes green fees." Rounds for visitors are $40 and the club does 38,000 rounds a year. A sleeve of three Titleist Pro V1 balls costs $24. Royal Harare has plenty of well water, enabling the course to look green in the dry Zimbabwe winters, and is fortuitously exempt from electricity blackouts thanks to its location opposite State House.
White and black golfers mix comfortably at golf clubs. Were it not for the black population taking to golf in the new millennium, the game would not have survived in Zimbabwe. Yet there has still been a sharp decline in the number of affiliated golfers (those belonging to a club) during the last 10 years -- from approximately 7,500 in 2004 to just 3,000.