ZIMBABWE’S SPECIAL CADRE OF GOLFERS

This soft-cover book recounts the life tales of the numerous Zimbabwean golfers who have had their moments of fame either in South Africa or the global stage. They range in age from Denis Hutchinson, born in Umtali 86 years ago, to Brendon de Jonge, 37, who was recently on the PGA Tour before losing form.

The 15th Club refers to the period in the early 1970s when rural golfers in the Centenary area north of Harare were first allowed a 15th club in the bag. This was an automatic rifle, to protect themselves while on the golf course. Mark McNulty, who grew up in the district, was 19 when a group of ZANLA guerrillas attacked a remote farmhouse in December 1972. A new front in the bush war had been opened. “Altena Farm was only a few miles from us, and I was home when it happened. Everyone went to maximum alert,” he recalls in the book.

McNulty and George Harvey were the first of the 1970s batch of stars to emerge, to be followed in quick order by Denis Watson, Teddy Webber, Nick Price and Tony Johnstone. It was a remarkable period in that country’s golfing history when their teams were often more than a match for those from South Africa.

Between them these six players won close to 150 tournaments on the PGA Tour, European Tour and Sunshine Tour, and more recently the Champions Tour. There was also David Leadbetter, who became one of the world’s top coaches, and tour caddie ‘Woody’ Woodward.

Several were intimately involved in the bush war, and got into scrapes and firefights while on active service. Webber, twice SA Amateur champion, was in an army vehicle hit by a landmine, and was at home in Umtali in 1976 when the town was hit by rocket fire. That was the year the war escalated. Several of them, particularly Price, saw school friends killed in the war.

Author Wessels, whose previous book was about the Rhodesian SAS, A Handful of Hard Men, has interviewed everyone, including the older brigade of characters such as Hutchy, Simon Hobday, Peter Matkovich and Muss Gammon, and the book is essentially their words. Mainly uncensored too! Gammon’s memories of early days working in the cigarette business is a hoot.

They have told their stories in a refreshingly candid manner – Wessels doesn’t always edit out the swear words T G – from their days of growing up as kids to when they achieved their golfing dreams. There are a number of “new” Hobday stories from his farming and golfing days in Zambia. The first part of the book is the best, dwelling as it does on the early days, while the second half is about their international tournament successes.

Nick Price recalls his days as a junior at Warren Hills Golf Club. “I was horrified by my first outing with (12-year-old) Tony Johnstone (Price was 11). He tried to find a gap between two Msasa trees with a 4-wood on the third hole, but there was a loud crack and his ball bounced behind him. He went purple, took that 4-wood and flushed it against a tree, snapping it in half. It was the first time I had seen a club broken in anger, and I was miffed because it was an expensive club that I would have liked to have had in my bag.”

Price talks sadly about giving up his Zimbabwean passport in 2004, and ending his tenure as a Zimbabwean citizen. “Most of us whites took Robert Mugabe at his word and that was a huge mistake,” he says. “Most of my pals who went farming had put absolutely everything they owned into their land and when it was taken away they had nothing. Some lost their lives. There were over a hundred golf courses, many excellent ones built by farmers, and now there are probably about 20 left and not many in good condition. My older brother Tim (who passed away in 2010) fought hard to save Harare South from the ‘war-vets’ during the land invasions but it was a losing battle. All the trees have been felled for firewood.

“Although I fought under a white government I did not agree with everything that was happening, but I was proud of my heritage. My father and brother are buried there and I’ll never stop loving that country.”

The Golf Life