Recently an old golf story has been doing the rounds on social media. Its about Papwa Sewgolum, a golfer of Indian Origin, who against all odds won tournaments in South Africa during the days of apartheid. Forgotten by many – it’s an inspiring, heart-warming 5 minute read – of talent and determination.
This starts back in 1955.
Graham Wulff was the man behind Oil of Olay. A former Unilever Chemist from Durban, he and business partner Jack Lowe had made the product a huge success. And he was a golf fanatic.
At the Beachwood Golf Club, Durban, he was playing with Lowe and business associates Anderson and Andrews. That sultry day the caddie of the volatile Andrews was a local man from the Indian community.
At the fifth hole, Andrews played a poor drive. He turned to his Indian caddie and asked him for advice on selecting a club for the approaching green.
The Indian man sniffed the breeze, saw the 145-metre distance, and selected a six-iron. The following stroke of Andrews was decent but short.
“You call yourself a first-class caddie?” he turned, face flushed, and barked at the Indian.
The man lowered his head and started walking towards the clubhouse.
“Hey man, where do you think you’re going?”
“To the clubhouse, Sir, to get you a first-class caddie.”
Andrews was shocked, but restrained his frustrations.
“What’s your name?”
“What made you so sure that a six-iron was the club for that shot?”
“I play a bit, Sir.”
Andrews picked up a six-iron and thrust it challengingly in his direction.
Papwa took it, looked at the distant flag, and practiced his swing. Andrews and the others burst out laughing. Left hand below the right, and yet a right hander’s stance. This man was hilarious.
Papwa swung the six-iron back, and with the smoothest motion of his hips, he arched through. His arms followed, and his wrists flicked like a whip. The ball rose, soared to its zenith some four metres beyond the flag, bit into the ground, and spun back within a foot of the hole.
The four white men gaped, and then their stern features broke into smiles. Soon, the Indian caddie’s hand was being shaken by all four.
As a child Papwa Sewgolum had been gifted a Syringa stick by his father, a municipal grasscutter in Durban. He had imitated golfers in the nearby course ever since, and had become a caddie as it was the closest he could get to proper facilities. He had won non-white tournaments contested between the caddies.
They discussed the various inequalities and laws that prevented him from playing. There was a conviction growing in Wulff that Papwa should be given proper opportunity.
By 1956, Wulff and Lowe had employed Papwa in their company to place caps on the bottles of Oil of Olay for £10 per month. His workload was light. He was given plenty of time off and access to facilities to hone his golfing skills.
In May 1959, Wulff flew Papwa in his own Piper Twin Comanche from Durban to London, missing Gatwick in the fog and somehow landing on Biggin Hill.
At his North Berwick Hotel, Scotland, Papwa received a telegram from the ladies of the Beachwood Golf Club where he caddied. The receptionist read it out to him: “Good wishes and good golfing.” Papwa could not read, he had never been to school.
In the British Open, Papwa could not qualify for the final two rounds by two strokes. White South African great Gary Player emerged champion.
However, at the Hague his final put trickled towards the 18th hole and, after showing slight signs of holding up, disappeared. He had overcome Gerard De Wit in the final.
The man who was not allowed to compete in Open tournaments in his own country had travelled to the land of the forefathers of the Afrikaners and won the Dutch Open.
The Golden City Post mournfully observed: “Back home the winner of the Dutch Open wouldn’t be allowed to take part in a White tournament except in a menial capacity.”
Sid Brews, former Dutch Open champion and president of the South African Golfer’s Association, said it was unlikely that Papwa would be allowed to compete in the South African Golf Open.
In 1960 Papwa won the Dutch Open for the second year running.
In the sultry heat of South African January, the Durban Country Club found members stretching out in the sun, Indian waiters hurrying across the turf, bringing them their tall drinks.
The golfers showered or sat in the air-conditioned changing rooms after their efforts in the course. The Indian chefs prepared delightful dishes. The magnificent club building, built in Cape Dutch style, overlooked the sprawling courses.
After years of pressure and criticism in the international press, Papwa was finally allowed to participate in the Natal Open.
However, there were no tall drinks brought to him by Indian waiters, nor any dishes prepared by Indian chefs, no changing room with air conditioning and showers.
He ate with the other caddies, lunch packed by his wife. His manager Louis Nelson drove him to the course. He changed in the car. From time to time he entered the tent of the caddies to sip his tea from a thermos flask.
The start was slow but soon the strangeness of playing alongside the 103-strong white field wore off.
Even rains failed to deter him. A smart stroke with a pitching wedge, his ally from the Dutch Open, took him to the brink. And holding his nerve, he putted in, finishing one stroke ahead of his closest rivals, Denis Hutchinson and Gary Player’s brother-in-law Bobby Verwey.
Papwa had done the unthinkable. As rain poured down, it sank in. A coloured man, an Indian, had not only competed in the Natal Open, he had won it.
He changed in Nelson’s car. The manager asked the spectators and fans who had gathered to congratulate the champion to look away. Then an official hustled towards them, asking him to hurry. The white golfers and their wives were getting wet in the rain.
As the downpour thickened, the golfers huddled into the clubhouse. There was a hitch—Papwa, the Indian man, was not allowed in the whites-only interiors.
Hurriedly, the white officials shoved the trophy into his hand. Some will maintain it was done through the window.
The winner out of the way, the actual celebrations continued indoors. The 1963 Natal Open Champion stayed outside, trophy in hand, getting lashed by rain.
In 1965 Papwa Sewgolum returned to the Netherlands to win his third Dutch Open title.
That same year, at the Durban Country Club, the Natal Open had him pitted against Gary Player. The Indian caddie versus the national icon.
As usual, Papwa changed and ate his wrapped lunch in his manager’s car.
It was a classic match, Player later commented, “He chipped like a man from Mars.”
Papwa won the tournament by one stroke. There was no rain this time.
The prize-giving took place outdoors. Gary Player, perhaps the greatest golfer of the era, was defeated by the man who could almost never tee off in a proper golf course in his own country.
Within two weeks of his win, authorities clamped down on mixed audiences watching sporting events. Papwa’s non-White fans had been lucky to watch their hero at the pinnacle of his career graph.
In 1970 cricketer Barry Richards enthralled the crowd during his debut series. Eric Lichfield could not hold back his emotions: “Every so often a grandiose diamond is found in South Africa—a jewel that glows with richness. Now there is a new sporting diamond. To the list of such gems, which includes the names of Bobby Locke, Gary Player, Karen Muir and, of course, Graeme Pollock, add Barry Richards.”
No place for coloured cricketer Basil D’Oiiveira or golfer Papwa.
That year April, the National Party romped through the elections once again—winning 118 of the 166 seats. Soon Papwa Sewgolum was banned from the Natal Open. His passport had already been revoked. In the ensuing years he would be denied the right to play golf altogether.