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Papwa

How a poor Indian caddie from a South African shantytown took on Gary Player during the apartheid era and turned into an unlikely civil-rights hero
Papwa

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Excerpted from Papwa Sewgolum: From Pariah to Legend

For u.s. golf fans, Sewsunker Sewgolum is likely not a familiar name. But the man known simply as Papwa was and continues to be a lightning rod in a country where the wounds from the civil-rights struggle remain fresh. His is at once one of golf’s greatest underdog stories and one of its most shameful.

Papwa grew up during South African apartheid as part of Durban’s large Indian population, in a tin shack not far from what was then Beachwood Country Club, sister property of the famed Durban Country Club. (Today the course is part of Durban CC.) Despite never going to school or taking a golf lesson, Papwa displayed a stunning natural gift for the sport. He became the preferred caddie to Beachwood members for his intuitive knowledge of the game and matured into an outstanding player. 

Adding further to his mystique, Papwa taught himself to play and simply held the club in the way most comfortable to him: a bizarre, cross-handed grip. Despite all of this, Papwa began winning caddie and “non-white” tournaments—the only ones he was allowed to play—and local media took notice.

“It was raining the first time I ever went to watch Papwa play,” wrote Reg Sweet, the sports editor of the Durban Sunday Tribune. “I was inclined to believe that the rain was fogging my spectacles. There seemed no valid reason, no explanation at all, why a man who gripped his club the way that Papwa did should achieve prodigious distance or control his short game in the way he was demonstrating to my eyes. The whole thing seemed so wrong. But the rain had little to do with it. Papwa, wrong grip and all, went around in a figure that more or less approximated the official record for the course, and yet another Caddies’ Championship was his.”

After impressing him as a caddie and player, Papwa was sponsored by Graham Wulff, the owner of Oil of Olay. Wulff flew Papwa personally to enter and play in the 1959 Open Championship at Muirfield. Papwa missed the cut, but shocked the world at his next tournament, winning the Dutch Open. That led to worldwide headlines, many of which highlighted the fact that Papwa was barred from entering similar events in his home country.

In 1963, Papwa won the Dutch Open again and finished 13th at the Open Championship at Royal Lytham & St. Annes Golf Club, ahead of the likes of Arnold Palmer. But it was his performance at the Natal Open at Durban Country Club that would cement his place in history. Finally allowed through a legal loophole to play against South African white professionals, Papwa made a dramatic par save on No. 18 to earn the victory. Then came “the prize-giving that shook the world.” It was raining, and all the white tournament officials and golfers took shelter inside the clubhouse. Papwa was “non-white” and therefore not allowed in the building. So he was handed the trophy outside as the more privileged rushed in to get out of the rain. The ensuing headlines rocked and shamed South Africa; Papwa became one of the first South African athletes to force a changing society to take a hard look in the mirror. The images of this event reverberated beyond a troubled country and made headlines around the world.

In South Africa, the Daily News wrote that “democrats abroad would be convinced that South Africa is a land of perpetual mid-summer ideological madness.” The Rand Daily Mail was equally shocked: “In any normal land the treatment of this fine player would be considered an insult to him and acute embarrassment to everyone else.” Peter Wilson of London’s Daily Mirror was outraged: “Here’s a story to warm the cockles of your heart, that is if you are a bigoted, prejudiced and vicious racialist.”

The tension was perhaps even thicker two years later, when Papwa once again entered the Natal Open and this time found himself in a final-round showdown with one of the world’s very best: Gary Player.

In this edited excerpt from Papwa Sewgolum: From Pariah to Legend, Christopher Nicholson—a South African author, former human-rights lawyer, judge and amateur player—details the dramatic battle between Papwa and Player, and a country at war with itself.—Travis Hill

In the Natal Open of 1965, Papwa was pitted against a strong field, including Gary Player, who had already won the same event in 1958, 1959, 1960 and 1962. This was to be another wonderful year for Player: He won nine times worldwide, including the U.S. Open (the fourth of his nine career major championships), the South African Open, the World Series of Golf and the Australian Open.…He was clearly on his best form and later called it the “golden year.” Yes, Papwa had won the 1963 Natal Open, but a great many noted that Player did not participate in that event.

The first two rounds saw Papwa playing steady golf, and he kept up with the best that the rest of the field could offer. On the last day—as was usual—the final two rounds were to be played on Sunday, with lunch providing the only break. Papwa was up with the leaders, including Player, and the two would end up paired for the final two rounds. The duel was to take on the characteristics of match play. News was filtering through to the Indian townships that their champion was making good and stood a chance of winning against the great Player in his prime—and so they flocked to the course, using every means of transport they could. Cheery supporters spilled out of crowded buses and taxis and some walked to see the great game.

As usual on tournament days, Papwa’s friend Fred Paul picked him up from his shanty in Riverside in his blue-and-white Opel Rekord, drove him the short distance to Durban Country Club and parked outside. During the break between the third and final rounds, Papwa and Paul trudged silently to the car for lunch. 

As Papwa walked, deep in thought and down two strokes to Player, Indian spectators slapped him on the back and wished their champion luck for the final 18 holes. Meanwhile, the divide between the white and Indian galleries was deepening and officials tried to keep the supporters separated with ropes.

Paul opened the front door of the car and leaned across to open the passenger door for Papwa. The golfer propped up his clubs against the rear door and waited while the suffocating heat escaped from the vehicle. As they sat down and commenced unwrapping their lunch and taking the lid off the thermos of tea, an object on the windshield attracted their attention. Staring wildly at the dark mass, they leaped out of the car, lifted one of the wipers and pulled out a dead bird—an Indian mynah. The bird’s glazed eyes stared into eternity and blood discolored its beak and dark plumage. 

Whoever was responsible for this offense had carefully calculated the distress it would cause Papwa and Paul. They were both deeply disturbed and racked their brains as to what sinister forces were at work. The message seemed clear: If Papwa beat Player, his life would be in danger. At minimum, if the threat was not to his life, then the implications were that he was a “mynah” golfer who would never win a “major.” A spectator picked up the dead bird and took it away while Papwa and Paul walked sadly to the waiters’ room and ate there. As they ate the banana curry in tamarind sauce that Papwa’s wife, Suminthra, swore by as an energy supplement, they pondered the lengths the white spectators would go to in order to force Papwa to lose concentration.

Neck and neck, Player and Papwa fought out the last round; the Indian golfer grimaced and put the earlier incident out of his mind. The day was perfect; there was none of the rain and wind that had disrupted the championship two years before and precipitated the disastrous prize-giving. 

When they teed off at the first hole, Player was in the lead and had the honor. Never an easy start to a round of golf, the architect who designed the course, Robert Grimsdell, used the slopes of the sand dunes to the left of this hole to present some very unpleasant situations. The green was also set into the side of a huge sand dune, and its construction involved one of the biggest earth-moving operations on any South African course. But both golfers managed to steer clear of the trouble for pars and the crowd surged ahead to see how the game would progress. 

As the spectators jostled for a better view, tempers flared and muttered curses betrayed the frayed dispositions of those witnessing the titanic struggle. For the most part the match had become a challenge between races and cultures—between the darling of the white hegemony and the living hope of the oppressed. 

At the seventh green, Player appeared shaken when he asked a spectator to move and was told, “We are here to see Papwa play, not you.” Not that it was only the Indian spectators who misbehaved; at the ninth hole, another incident occurred when Player was in some trouble behind a few trees. A European spectator demanded that a marshal sit down so that he could see; when the marshal said that he would sit down only when Player was ready to play his shot, the spectator rushed up to the marshal and threatened to assault him.

At the 13th, Papwa had battled back to draw level with Player. On the tee, they were told that Harold Henning was in the clubhouse with 71, which meant that they had to pick up one shot in the next five holes for victory. The 14th at the Durban CC is a par 5. Player drove well and his second was straight down the fairway. Papwa drove majestically into the gentle breeze and slammed a 3-wood 15 feet past the hole. Taking out his favorite pitching wedge, he spent an inordinately long time pacing up and down, gauging the chip. The white members of the crowd moved their feet impatiently and clicked their tongues with irritation. 

The marshals looked at their watches: Play must be continuous. Finally Papwa settled over the shot and took his pitching wedge back and forward again. The ball set off on its journey with the hopes and fears of thousands on it. As it reached the hole it seemed to lose all energy and threatened to lose interest. But with a final roll the ball slipped quietly into the hole—and many in the crowd roared their approval. 

But the marvelous chip incensed a portion of the gallery who complained about the excessive delay, which angered those supporting Papwa. The next day, the white marshals spoke to the press about the behavior of the Indian supporters. One said, “If we didn’t have ropes to keep back the crowds today, we would be dead.” Even the normally unflappable Player became unsettled and said, “If this goes on I just cannot play in these tournaments anymore.”

An old Hindu saying states, “He who cannot dance claims the floor is uneven.” Whatever the merits of the arguments about the behavior of the crowd, the fact remained that Papwa’s eagle gave him the strokes he needed in one hole.

Not to be outdone, Player sank a long putt to birdie the same hole to pull within a shot. Papwa’s putt for a birdie at the short 15th, to place him two shots in the clear, just stayed out. On the 16th, he again failed to take advantage of pushing his lead further when he missed another birdie putt. Was he throwing away every chance of winning the tournament of his life?

By the 17th, even Papwa’s unflappable mien seemed to have deserted him. He missed a 7-foot putt and there were audible groans and worried frowns from his thronging supporters. The white spectators continued to encourage Player, and the Man in Black had to make a putt to stay one back, but also fluffed a putt to fall two off the pace. Anxiety on behalf of both players spilled through the entire gallery.

The two golfers strode to the tee box of the 18th in silence while the marshals rallied the spectators behind the ropes and urged them to be quiet. “Come on, Papwa!” a small Indian boy yelled; a marshal shook his fist at him and held a finger to his lips. The officials carrying the mobile scoreboards adjusted the bare figures: Papwa was two strokes ahead with one hole to play. The 18th was a drivable par 4 and Player needed to make eagle and have Papwa settle for par to go to extra holes. This was the hole that had nearly been Papwa’s nemesis two years previously, when he had smashed his drive down the steep bank to the right, only to make a spectacular par save. The offshore breeze had sprung up and the temptation was very strong to play to the left. He looked at the rows of dark faces grim with expectation; he also looked at the fair-skinned ones, pursing their lips and willing Player to pull it off again. Had the Black Knight left his famous charge too late to save the game?

Papwa sighed and sniffed the wind; he called for his small towel and wiped his palms. It was now or never. With the deliberation of a sleepwalker he pulled out his driver and launched into his stroke; the ball started on a true course but caught the wind that exacerbated his slight fade. Farther and farther to the right it sliced, hit the rim of the steep bank and tumbled like a boulder down a mountain slope. Disaster! He had learned little from his approach two years before and jeopardized his whole tournament. The bank normally would have held the ball on the upper slope, but thousands of trampling spectator feet had leveled the ground and the ball sped to the base. There was a collective sigh of disappointment from the pro-Papwa gallery and mutters of encouragement from others to Player. Even the wisest sages in that crowd reckoned Papwa had balked at the last hurdle; golf had no political bias.

Again Papwa had to march to the top of the bank to get a view of the flag. He looked at his bag of clubs and sought out his favorite pitching wedge. The shot soared high but ended up in the bunker. From there he seemed to lose all confidence and developed a shake that was totally uncharacteristic; he chipped short. His first putt was weak and the ball ended up 2 feet from the hole. But he putted the next firmly and the ball scurried ’round the hole like a frightened rabbit before finally going home. He had made 5. There was not a spectator in that mixed gallery who did not reckon he had fluffed his chance.

Player had a 10-foot birdie putt to force a playoff. He walked up and down for a long time, gauging the putt. His caddie crouched and moved his head from side to side. The tension was unbearable. Player bent his head; was he praying? 

Papwa later said he wondered if he should invoke the Hindu deities; would God the omniscient, “who knows the deepest depths of the earth and the highest heights of the heavens,” intervene and make his judgement known? 

Would this God, who apparently had the time and inclination to watch the minutiae of life, take a moment from a busy schedule and direct the path of a Dunlop 365 golf ball with a Gary Player logo into the hole or away? Papwa’s erstwhile manager, Louis Nelson, was with Paul, witnessing this dramatic denouement. Both men could not bear to watch and yet they felt their eyes hypnotically drawn to the drama, frozen in time. Finally, Player closed his eyes and his lips seemed to murmur an invocation. He bent over the ball, played a practice swing and then finally addressed the ball.

A fly settled on the ball and Player waved it away with his club. He took the putter back and then forward; in what seemed like an eternity, the ball proceeded on its way. For some part of the journey it held to its course, watched by 1,000 eyes. Straight and true to its master’s command, it rolled until it reached a point 2 feet from the cup. At that point it encountered a stud mark—the bane of all golfers. The ball seemed to shrug off the inconvenience of the depression and journeyed on toward its final destination. But the mark had been enough to blunt the ball’s purpose to the smallest degree, and it veered away and lipped the cup. He had missed his putt. Papwa had beaten the great Player by one shot. 

Hundreds of whites walked away in disgust. Some congratulated Papwa. 

“You really fixed the whiteys today.” 

Some white ladies went and kissed Papwa. Paul remonstrated with him. 

“Don’t you know the laws of the country, Papwa?” 

“When you get an opportunity, Fred, you have to take it,” he answered.

There was still to be drama: Player challenged the correctness of Papwa’s card and for some time the marshals conferred. But the card was accurate. 

Papwa could not find words to express his joy. He stood open-mouthed and then dropped his head modestly. When speech returned, he stuttered, “I just can’t believe it,” shaking his head. 

Player was gracious in defeat and said that Papwa played very well and deserved to win. “He chipped like a man from Mars,” he said. The press reported that Papwa also deserved it “despite the disgraceful behaviour of part of the gallery,” but that “Player was out of form.” 

Fortunately for the officials of Durban Country Club, the weather was clement and the prize-giving took place outside.…But as always, controversy dogged the footsteps of Papwa; there was still to be one more political gaffe. Once Papwa had received his trophy, the officials forgot to hand him his check. After the other prize winners had been handed their prizes, the white golfers and officials headed into the clubhouse to drown their sorrows and replace the fluids lost on the course. Only then did the organizers realize that the check was still sitting in its envelope; they filled in the payee “Papwa Sewsunker Sewgolam” and handed the check to the Indian golfer through the window. He shook his head in disbelief. 

But the quaint racism of the frightened white minority could not stop the victor from rejoicing amongst his own. With well-wishers shouting congratulations and slapping their hero, his friend and his car, Papwa and Paul drove back home to Suminthra and the family, who were waiting patiently for word in their small shanty on Riverside Road. 

Papwa Sewgolum: From Pariah to Legend
Christopher Nicholson 
Wits University Press, 2005, 196 pp, $14

Photo: Daily Mirror/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images

Epilogue

Despite the joy of that moment, things did not end happily for Papwa. True, the South African government was once again embarrassed by his performances. But the reaction was to double down on a vision of white supremacy rather than question it: The small legal loophole that had been previously used to allow Papwa entrance to “non-white” events was closed, effectively killing his career in South Africa. 

He made a few brief forays into Europe and even the U.S., but Papwa rarely rediscovered his magic. By most accounts, he was ultimately undone by his love for a country that wouldn’t love him back. “Outside South Africa my dad was a hero,” his son Rajen told Golf Digest in 2007. “But on his own doorstep, he was treated like a tramp. He couldn’t understand why he was being kept from doing the thing he loved. It was breaking him emotionally. Golf was his only livelihood. It was all he knew.”

Player’s status and profile only grew after the 1965 Natal Open, while Papwa’s diminished. Player’s struggles with apartheid-era politics have been well documented, but he never said a bad word about Papwa and in 2007 told Golf Digest, “He was a thorough gentleman. And he was very, very talented. He was short off the tee but had a very good short game, and a very good temperament. He’s been an extremely controversial subject in South Africa. It was tough for him. He came along at the wrong time, unfortunately. But in the meantime, he’s given a lot of people, particularly young Indian golfers, a lot of encouragement. Any young Indian golfer coming along can have Papwa as a hero.”

There has been much discussion through the years about Papwa’s potential and where it could have led in a different time. Deprived of a fuller livelihood by apartheid, he eventually even lost interest in the local tournaments. In 1977, he played his final event, the Natal Open for “non-whites.” He won it for the 20th time in 22 attempts. Sewsunker “Papwa” Sewgolum died of a heart attack on July 9, 1978.  

—T.H.