June 18, 2009

A World Away

Few players in the U.S. Open have traveled a greater distance than James Kamte

After grow up under apartheid in South Africa, James Kamte now finds himself competing in his first U.S. Open this week.

After grow up under apartheid in South Africa, James Kamte now finds himself competing in his first U.S. Open this week.

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. -- So I got one word with James Bongani Kamte.

No, you don't know him. No reason you should.

He has been in the United States about five minutes. Played in the Memorial, Jack's tournament, shot 77-78-goodbye. But on the range there, Tiger had noticed the stranger. A black guy, short, with Tyson shoulders.

Tiger's question, Who's that?

The answer, James Kamte, South Africa. Won in Thailand a month ago, Jack invited him.

There's a novel in those words, and Tiger added an epilogue by telling Kamte that if he qualified the next Monday for the U.S. Open, they'd play a practice round together at Bethpage Black. The odds of that were long because Kamte's qualifier would be full of PGA Tour folks already in town -- stars such as Davis Love III, Lee Janzen, Chris DiMarco, Aaron Baddeley, Charles Howell, Steve Flesch, Jesper Parnevik, and Woody Austin.

Kamte made it.

Those guys didn't.

Kamte shot 68-65-133, three shots to the good, and there was Tiger waiting at Bethpage to welcome him to his world. After their nine-hole practice round, Kamte told the Associated Press reporter Doug Ferguson, "It was awesome ... He understands the game, and that's where I need to get."

Some stories prove anything is possible. When Kamte was born, Nelson Mandela had been in prison 19 years, locked up because he protested, finally with violence, the inhumane conduct of the South African government. "Inhumane" is the adjective chosen by the International Criminal Court to define the system of apartheid that legally subjugated the entire black race in South Africa. In the time of apartheid, it was all but inconceivable that a South African black man one day would stand on Jack Nicklaus's golf course and there shake hands with the world's most famous player, also a black man.

Kamte was 8 years old when Mandela was freed.

He was 14 when he first played golf.

On a Friday a dozen years later, James Bongani Kamte, once a dollar-a-day caddie in a place that regarded him as less than human, walked in the sun that at last shone on this U.S. Open. He was five over par through nine holes, but it didn't matter. He'd probably miss the cut, but that didn't matter, either. Nothing mattered except that here was an inconceivability that a man had made into reality.

Not that Kamte would have bought into that idea. He was at Bethpage only to hit golf shots that mattered a great deal. My colleague Pete McDaniel, who knows these things, said, "He's got a ton of game. Got the length. Some problems with distance control on his irons. Putts OK. Got personality, charisma, a real salesman."

Kamte has won four times professionally, three victories coming on South Africa's Sunshine Tour, then the one this spring on the Asian Tour that prompted Nicklaus's invitation. On his last nine holes Friday, he did everything that a winner does: hacking out of knee-high rough for a par, pitching from hay for another, bombing a drive 100 yards past his playing partners to leave a 7-iron second shot on a 525-yard par-4 hole, dropping a 9-iron a foot from the cup at his last for a kick-in birdie that brought him in at one-under-par on his last nine for a round of 40-34-74.

Not all that good, a 74 on a day when the leader was at 64. But 74 was the number another man put up, too.

Tiger Woods, 37-37-74.

As James Bongani Kamte finished his round and had to hurry off to prepare for a second time around, I intercepted him briefly to shake hands.

Professional golfers have seriously strong hands. They're wrestled the cursed sticks for their whole lives. I had never touched a golfer's hand that was the likes of Kamte's. He is a short man but not small, 5-foot-7, 180 pounds, powerfully built, once a soccer player nicknamed "Cobra." His right hand is so thick with muscle and so calloused that it felt like I had grabbed a brick.

One question, What was it like for you today?

One word, Awesome.