Golf, Interrupted

The unlikely story of the first PGA professional from Zambia

October 30, 2019

I grew up in Luanshya, a small town in Zambia. My father worked for a copper mine, which owned a golf course. Somebody gave my dad clubs, and he tried to get me and my six siblings to try. I was the only one interested. I was 9 years old, and when I came to the club, Roan Antelope, it was like walking into a different world.

For fun, most kids hunted for mice with slingshots or went fishing with their bare hands. I walked to the golf course to practice, almost every day after school. My dad would meet me after work. We didn’t have a car, so we hoped one of his friends would drive us home. If not, we’d have to walk through the bushes in the dark, which was dangerous. You could get attacked. It never happened, but it was a fear.

I never had a formal lesson. I had this weird stance, and I played with a persimmon 1985 Slazenger wood all the way through my teens. There were frustrating days when I felt lost. But I kept practicing. I became a scratch handicap and won the junior national championship by 15 and represented my country on the national team at 16.

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I told everyone I was going to be a pro. My mom didn’t know what that meant, and my dad thought I was mad. I saw it as a way out of Zambia. I’d watch BBC’s sports segments every day and write down the name of the reporter. I’d write a letter, explaining my goal of playing golf internationally, and put the envelope in the mail without a physical address on it. I didn’t know how mail worked. I was just hoping it would find its way into someone’s hands who could help. I did this way more than 500 times. There was literally nothing else but golf that mattered to me.

Alan Pittman

Kabaso holds a photo of his father, Albert, at Roan Antelope, the course in Zambia where Vincent started playing.

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Two years later, amazingly, someone answered one of my letters. The British PGA wrote to recommend I apply to the R&A for an educational grant. I did, and I was accepted into Bridgwater College in England. I needed to come up with the balance of my tuition, €3,000. There was no way for my family to pay that, but it didn’t matter to me. I was going. My dad took out a loan to buy my plane ticket. And my mom closed her life-savings account, giving me the $600 in it.

I showed up in England with nothing but a new golf glove. The school had to arrange for rental clubs and golf shoes. After three weeks, I owed the remainder of tuition, but I didn’t have it. Our head of golf, Jonathan MacDonald, found me a place to live and a job in the school cafeteria. He also wrote a letter to the R&A, explaining my situation. They were so gracious again, upping my grant by €1,000 and getting me a set of new clubs. Eventually it was the end of the semester, and I couldn’t pay for another tuition at Bridgwater. I wanted to play competitively, and a school in Scotland, Elmwood College, accepted me. Jonathan, knowing I had no money, wrote me a check for €2,000 and bought me a flight to Glasgow. I was off.

Alan Pittman

Kabaso, 32, became a scratch golfer by 15 and played for Zambia's national team at 16.

Again there were money problems. I got through the first year but was unable to afford the second, so it was back to Zambia. I started working for Nchanga Golf Club, and I became its general manager. It was good work, but I wasn’t living my dream. One day I searched, “How to become a PGA pro, America.” Professional golf-management programs popped up, so I applied to a few. Methodist University in Fayetteville, N.C., accepted me and offered me a grant. Still, I had little to nothing and would be responsible for half the tuition.

At that point, I wasn’t going to be stopped. My dream consumed my life. Everybody tried to talk me out of it, but it was no use. I sold nearly everything: a car, furniture, clothes, and I came up with about $5,000. The program cost $40,000. I was getting about $8,000 in scholarships and grants. My Uncle Reuben gave me $5,000, and the CEO of the mine that owned Nchanga Golf Club paid for my flight to the United States, so I was off to North Carolina.

Early on it appeared my time on this path would be cut short, too. My uncle’s business slowed within a month of me arriving at school. I had no way of paying the remainder of my half-year’s tuition, so I had to drop out, and that didn’t stop debt collectors from knocking at my door. I needed a job or else I’d be in serious trouble.

Luckily, I met a woman, Hannah, at a church group in my first month. She encouraged me to fight. I applied for every job on the PGA website, and I got a call from New Haven [Conn.] Country Club. Not only did head professional Bill Wallis offer me a job as an assistant pro, but he allowed me to stay in the club’s house, and they’d help pay to get my certification as a PGA professional. This seemed like a miracle. There were so many times on my journey when I questioned whether I’d make it. After this call, it felt like I had made the right decision. I was on the next flight to New Haven.

I proposed to Hannah that winter and got married the next year, 2015. Hannah is in the Air Force and was transferred to New Jersey. To be closer to her, I’m a teaching pro at Laurel Creek Country Club in Mount Laurel, N.J. We welcomed our first child, JoAnna Zawadi, last year, right after I achieved PGA status.

Alan Pittman

“I told everyone I was going to be a pro. My mom didn’t know what that meant, and my dad thought I was mad.”

It’s hard for me to put into words how special both of those things are to me. I can only thank everyone who believed in me and helped me get where I am.

To give back, I’ve started the “Raised by the World Foundation” so I can help others who didn’t have assistance when they only had dreams. We fully support a boy, Oswald, who’s in a private high school because of our funding. He trespassed back at Nchanga when I worked there. I could tell there was something different about him. Kind of like me.

—With Stephen Hennessey