The First Great Indian Golfer

Apartheid – the system of racial segregation in South Africa by which a minority white population ran the country for their own benefits, abusing the rights of the natives and the immigrant slaves. The atrocities of this system are all too well known, and only when the whole world stood together to support Nelson Mandela in its abolishment did it become a thing of the past. It took away the joy from many lives, gave no chance for many a dreams. And one of those whose dreams it stood firmly against was of Sewsunker Sewgolum, known as ‘Papwa’ amongst his friends and followers.

Ever since Jeev Milkha Singh, Jyoti Randhawa, and Arjun Atwal made it to the big time in world golf, even Tiger Wood hails India as a country which could bring up some top grade players. However, not many know that long before these stalwarts made inroads into the Majors, Papwa, an impoverished caddie whose great-grandfather was one amongst the throngs of slaves who used to be imported to South Africa in the 1800s, took a crack at the British Open at Muirfield in 1959. In fact, when he appeared again in 1963, he finished a respectable 13th, beating, amongst many, Arnold Palmer. To date, the best finish by an Indian golfer in the Majors is Jeev Milkha Singh’s Tied 36th place finish at this year’s US Open.

Papwa happened to stumble upon golf by chance, when he reached the Beachwood Country Club in Durban while walking down the Shantytown where he lived. His father made him a golf club from a Guava tree branch, and when his father died, Papwa became a caddie to provide for his family. Despite limited access to playing facilities, Papwa became an excellent, although strange, player. Strange because he held the club with his left hand below the right even though he was right-handed, opposite of the technique most players follow. If it hampered his game, nobody noticed it since he regularly scored in the 60s, and even aced the par-4 16th hole at the Beachwood Country Club.

Unfortunately for him, apartheid restricted his appearances in Open tournaments, since non-whites were not allowed to compete in the bigger tournaments that were held to be for the whites. Papwa managed to find a loophole in the notorious Group Areas Act, and was allowed to participate in some tournaments else while reserved for the white population. However, he was not allowed for practice rounds, and could only “occupy” the course, and not the club house. Papwa made the most of this permit when he won the Natal Open in 1963, by making par on the final hole. His feat was followed by possibly the prize giving that shook the world.

It was raining heavily when Papwa finished his round. Since Papwa was not permitted within clubhouse premises, he was handed the trophy quickly in a small, not-too-respectful ceremony, and the rest of the crowd went indoors for the other prize distributions. The Champion was left to soak in the rain in his hour.

Years down the line, the club still remains unsympathetic towards Papwa. In a page of the club’s history, dated 1982, it says Papwa was a brilliant golfer, but never had the determination to remain at the top, and he had only himself to blame for his fall. Today, Durban Country Club – “where people matter and values count” – do not even refer once to probably their most famous former employee. Beside a plaque facing the 18th green in memory of Papwa’s exploits and an apology for his treatment decades ago, nothing more has been done to vanquish the memory of a dark chapter in golf.

Raveesh Bhalla