Skip to main content
Original Issue

Papwa's championship play

A Hindu who uses a cross-handed grip won the Natal Open and left the racist South African government a little crossed up itself

An illiterate son of an illiterate fruit peddler who has a cross-handed golf grip won the Natal Open in Durban, South Africa the other day, making sporting history of one sort and political history of quite another. The winner was 34-year-old Sewsunker (Papwa) Sewgolum, a Hindu who lives with his large family in a corrugated steel shack not a mile from the exclusive Durban Country Club, the site of the tournament.

Never before has a nonwhite won a major South African golf title. To do so, Sewgolum had to beat such notable competitors as South African Masters Champion Denis Hutchinson, South African Open Champion Harold Henning, aging but still able Bobby Locke and—above all—South Africa's official and volatile apartheid policy.

The closing moments of the tournament were like scenes from a Kipling novel. The day was windy and overcast, and it seemed as if all the Asian fruit hawkers in the world were on hand to cheer for their idol. Their horse-drawn carts and dilapidated trucks clogged the all-white country club's parking lot, and they surged over the hilly golf course with an unbridled enthusiasm.

On the last hole Sewgolum, swinging away with his bizarre grip that places the left hand below the right, drove his ball down a steep bank near the green. But he coolly pitched on and two-putted, winning the championship by a single stroke with a four-round total of 293. Hardly aware of the drizzling rain that had started to fall, Papwa's followers carried him shoulder-high to the clubhouse which, because of his color, he is forbidden by law to enter.

There the rain had created a unique problem. The prizegiving ceremonies, originally scheduled to be held on the neatly clipped lawn outside the clubhouse, would certainly have to be moved indoors. But how do you present the Natal Open trophy indoors if the Natal Open champion has to stay outdoors?

The country club's officers went into concerned consultation, called the club's legal advisors and came up with a solution that was at least law-abiding; give Papwa his trophy outside, then bestow the runner-up prizes in the clubhouse. While most of the other competitors were showering, unaware of what was taking place on the lawn, a handful of Natal Golf Union officials marched unhappily down the clubhouse steps to hand the wet but wide-smiling Papwa his cup and a check for $1,120.

The South African Broadcasting Corporation, meanwhile, was refusing to mention Papwa's win on the air. "We do not broadcast multiracial sport," grumped Program Director Douglas Fuchs. But the word got around, and if SABC announcers were not talking about Papwa Sewgolum and the Natal Open, everyone else was. In Parliament the government's opposition used the incident to flay the administration's racial policy. "Papwa receiving his trophy in the rain will do more to establish our image abroad than all the glossy pamphlets issued by the State Information Department," said Mistress Helen Suzman, lone parliamentary representative of the Progressive Party.

"No permit was issued to Sewgolum authorizing him to take part in the tournament," countered Community Development Minister Piet W. Botha darkly. "Consideration is being given to steps that should be taken."

Golfers, however, came to Sewgolum's support with some commonsense remarks. "He has proved himself a talented sportsman and a gentleman," said Reg Taylor, member of South Africa's golf team in the recent World Amateur Championship.

"Papwa has earned the right to be classed as one of the best players in the country, and the idea of an open is to allow the best players to compete against one another," said Sid Brews, whose official title is national dean of South African golf.

Sewgolum himself took the entire episode calmly. A familiar figure on Durban's "for Asians only" golf course since he was given a set of clubs seven years ago, he had won the Dutch Open in 1959 and 1960. Thus the new victory was no fluke. "His grip restricts his follow-through and therefore his length," was Gary Player's assessment of Papwa's game last week, "but he has good nerves and a good short game."

Papwa also has a short money game, and he can use the prize. His hut is huddled with a cluster of other shacks amid some vegetable patches hard by the Indian Ocean. He lives there with his wife, their three children, his blind mother, his three brothers and their families. He is a modest man, but he has ambitious plans for his $1,120. "I'm going to spend it slowly, as I need it," he says with appealing optimism. "Perhaps I can invest a little of it. I hope it will get us a new home—and a chance to practice my golf more than just once a week."