Golf In The Days Of Black & White

Papwa Sewgolum, Gary Player and apartheid then and now

November 2007

It's a midweek afternoon in August at the Durban Country Club, one of South Africa's most famous golf courses, and a club tournament is in full swing. The bar is filled with golfers telling jokes over beers, totting up their scores, and keeping half an eye on the TV, where a cricket match between the Virgin Islands and St. Vincent is reaching what in cricket passes for a critical climax. Outside, through the glass doors, a procession of golfers and their barefoot caddies can be seen navigating the devilish par-4 closing hole, where a skillful tee shot that is favored with a couple of fortunate breaks can sometimes reach all the way to the green. The sun is shining. Monkeys play in the trees. There is a breeze coming off the nearby Indian Ocean, filled with tropical suggestions of exotic fruits and spices, and forgotten sultry afternoons.

"This is where it happened," says Rajen Sewgolum. In golf's long and checkered history of racial discrimination, what took place in 1963 on the terrace directly in front of us has been characterized as the sport's most shameful moment. In a sport that is still far from averse to shameful moments, it's a story that continues to resonate today. Rajen's father, Sewsunker Sewgolum, an impoverished caddie who grew up in a tin shack not far from the course, who never went to school and could neither read nor write, was finally, at the age of 34, given permission to compete in the Natal Open, a tournament that had previously refused his presence because of the color of his skin. And playing the game with his characteristic serenity and a strange upside-down grip, the man they called "Papwa," who never had a golf lesson in his life, overcame some of the best South African professionals of the day to win the tournament. It was an astonishing victory: To the large Indian community in Durban and to observers around the world, Papwa was a revelation, a homespun hero, a dark-skinned David in a world of white golfing Goliaths.

What happened next became known as "the prize-giving that shook the world." Because it was raining, the logical place for the post-tournament coronation was inside the clubhouse. But in the apartheid parlance of how the government of the day itemized human beings, Papwa was a "nonwhite"; the sanctuary of the clubhouse was exclusively for whites. The champion was therefore hurriedly handed the trophy outside. A hard rain was falling. There would be many more rains to come. Sewgolum died at 49, a disappointed, broken man.

Papwa was born in a part of the world with a history of oppression. It was in Natal that southern Africans experienced their first taste of systematic segregation, under the British colonial "Shepstone system." Papwa's great-grandfather was one of an army of indentured laborers -- quasi-slaves -- imported from India in 1860 to work on the sugar plantations. Up the road is Pietermaritzburg, where, in 1893, a dapper young Indian lawyer was thrown off a train for having the temerity to hold a first-class ticket -- which he had paid for. So began a lifelong campaign against injustice by Mohandas -- later "Mahatma" -- Gandhi.

Papwa happened to become a golfer because one day, as a boy, walking beyond the confines of the shantytown where he lived, he stumbled upon the Beachwood Golf Course, sister to the nearby Durban Country Club. Later, back home, his father made him a club from a guava tree branch. His father died a few years later, and to support the family, Papwa went off to work as a caddie. By the time he reached adulthood, despite limited access to golf courses and equipment, he'd become a terrific, natural, self-taught player. Unlike practically every other right-handed golfer, Papwa held the club with the left hand below the right, and with no overlapping or interlocking fingers, a strange piece of unconvention of the kind that is sometimes found in geniuses, like Lester Young holding his saxophone sideways, or Einstein's aversion to socks. "I believe a man should swing a club the best way he knows how," Papwa told Golf Digest in 1964. (Many top golfers today use Papwa's cross-handed grip for putting, even chipping, but only a handful use it for all shots.) It certainly worked: He would regularly shoot in the 60s and once made a hole-in-one on Beachwood's par-4 16th hole. With borrowed clubs and borrowed shoes, he won the Natal Amateur at 16 and soon was winning local tournaments for "nonwhites," often by more than 20 shots, routinely setting course records.

The notorious Group Areas Act, which sought to demarcate separate areas for different "races" to live and work, meant that the bigger, far-more-profitable white tournaments were out-of-bounds for Papwa. But there was ambiguity in the law: Was it really illegal for a "nonwhite" to "occupy" a white area if that area was, say, a cinema, or a golf course? The loophole enabled Papwa to gain permission to play in a few white tournaments, starting with the 1961 South African Open, but in the contorted logic of the day he would be allowed to "occupy" only the golf course, not any of the facilities, including the clubhouse, and the permit was only for the days of the tournament -- no practice rounds were possible. Such permits were very rarely granted, usually at the last minute, and always came with significant restrictions. Papwa was constantly watched -- and sometimes directly threatened -- by the secret police. "He must have always been in a state of turmoil," says Rajen over tea at the now-integrated Durban Country Club, which he recently joined.

In 1963, for the first time Papwa's application to play in the Natal "Open" was accepted. On the last day, watched by a surging crowd of Indian supporters, he parred the final hole to win by a stroke. It was an astonishing feat. Papwa was immediately hoisted onto the shoulders of his ecstatic followers. Every caddie, waiter and laborer in Durban stood a little taller that day: Papwa had beaten the white man at his game.

The legend of the ensuing prize-giving has been handed down through the decades like folklore. As Papwa changed in his manager's car and combed his hair, the rain began to fall. "The weather was wild," says a club history published in 1982 (which incorrectly gives the date of the incident as 1965). "A fierce wind blew and the sky was black. ... Then down came the rain in pounding torrents."

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