They are so talented that it’s almost scary – in the space of barely three years, a group of underprivileged schoolchildren from informal settlements around Kitwe have become golfing prodigies, winning both local and international tournaments and putting Zambia on the map.
They are the beneficiaries of the Junior Golf Academy, a development programme for children under the age of 18, run at Kitwe’s Nkana Golf Club and sponsored by Mopani Copper Mines.
“Three years ago, these kids had not even touched a golf club – today they have low single-digit handicaps and are playing at professional level,” says Besa Daka, the club pro at Nkana Golf Club, and himself a former championship golfer. “We can maybe create the next Tiger Woods!”
About 150 youngsters have gone through the programme since Mopani came on board as a sponsor in 2011. Last year alone, Mopani raised more than K1,000 000 for the programme during the 2017 Zambia Open. The children are provided with golf equipment and attire, and access to the club’s facilities. They also have their educational expenses such as school fees and uniforms taken care of. They also have their expenses paid when they attend local and international golfing tournaments.
Three years ago, they had not touched a golf club – today they are playing at professional level
“The top junior golfers from the programme have participated in both local and international tournaments,” says Daka. “They even played the All Africa Junior Golf Challenge in Morroco recently, and did well, finishing sixth in a field of twelve.”
How does one find young golfing talent in informal settlements where there is no electricity and where people can barely afford the basics of life – never mind afford to play a sport that is usually the preserve of the middle and upper classes?
Daka explains that there’s a rigorous sorting and sifting process, and it soon becomes clear which of the children have potential. “As coaches, we can see the ones with talent,” he says. “We put them to one side and start to teach them golf. Within six months to a year, they’re playing on the course and participating in club competitions. Our best golfer plays off a 2-handicap.”
The training schedule is strict. They practise three times a week, honing their skills both on the driving range and on the golf course. They play in club competitions, and are also invited to play with professional golfers from the Professional Golf Association of Zambia. The children are expected to stay in school and do well in their studies; a good education is seen as being an integral part of being a good golfer.
Indeed, on the day Daka is being interviewed for this article, the youngsters are nowhere in sight because they are still on their way home from school. We leave the pristine surroundings of the Nkana Golf Club, jump into a rickety taxi and drive to Kandabwe township to see if we can speak to a couple of particularly promising players who live there. The old Toyota taxi creaks and groans as it winds its way ever so slowly through the settlement, over an appallingly bad dirt track, dodging chickens and goats, and an increasingly growing number of curious children. We eventually track down Dominic and Humphrey, two of the programme’s star golfers, and interview them in front of a noisy, cheering crowd of onlookers.
“I started playing golf in 2014,” says Humphrey, who is only 16 years old. Asked how long it took him to get down to 18-handicap, he says six months, as if it’s no big deal. Yet many club golfers around the world can take a lifetime to get to that level, and most never will. Today, Humphrey plays off a 5-handicap, and has already won the Zambia Junior Open. He once shot a record 69 at Nkana Golf Club. What are his career aspirations? “I want to become a professional golfer!”
Dominic is 14 years old. He too picked up a golf club for the first time barely three years ago, and was down to an 18-handicap in a matter of months. Today, he plays off a 5-handicap, and has some notable wins to his name. “I was part of the team that won the Tri-Nations tournament in Lusaka last year between Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi. I also came first in the Chikwa North tournament last year.” Like Humphrey, he too dreams of becoming a professional golfer.
Many great sportsmen and women come from humble beginnings – and beginnings don’t get more humble than Kandabwe township. Perhaps in the not-to-distant future, the world will get to witness the sporting prowess of a star Zambian golf champion, and will be surprised to learn that it all started right here, in circumstances that might have defeated lesser mortals.
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