Anyone who has ever seriously followed golf knows the challenge people of color had in breaking the barriers to this game. As far back as 1896, when John Shippen became the first African-American to play in the U.S. Open, to 1962 when Charlie Sifford became the first black PGA Tour member, non-whites have worked hard to prove that golf was not just a ‘white’ man’s game.
More recently, the formerly all-white and no women allowed Augusta Golf Course saw the color barrier crushed when Lee Elder became the first African-American to play in the U.S. Open in 1975. Four years later, Elder became the first African-American to win a slot on the U.S. Ryder Cup team.
It hasn’t been only in the United States that blacks have had to overcome the barriers to playing this ancient game. Golf was introduced into Zimbabwe in 1896 by the first English colonial settlers, with a course constructed in the western provincial town of Bulawayo. Black Zimbabweans, or Rhodesians until independence in 1980, were either barred from playing or restricted to one or two black-only courses, like Glen Eagle, located in an all-black neighborhood of Harare.
In 1981, 35-year-old Jimmy Tavengwa, an instructor at a health spa in Harare, set out to change all that.
Tavengwa, who at that time had a third degree black belt in Kung Fu, was a senior instructor at the spa. He also had the trust of his white supervisor, the spa owner, who was himself an avid golfer. “I had never thought about playing golf,” Tavengwa told me recently. “But, I used to watch my boss play, and started developing curiosity.”
Whether it was being told that golf was a “European” game that he could never hope to play well, or being left to guard his boss’s house which happened to be across the road from a golf course, Tavengwa is not sure. “But,” he said. “While he was gone, and I was there alone with his golf clubs, I began going across the road to the course when no one else was around, and hitting balls. I found I had a natural talent for the game, and was hooked.”
Tavengwa’s boss often took him to the course when he played. One day, after his return, Tavengwa asked if he could hit a couple of balls. He was humored and allowed to do so. He did it so well, and repeatedly, his boss gave him a set of his old clubs and presumed upon the committee of the then whites-only Chapman Golf Club to admit Tavengwa as the first black member. He had suggested Tavengwa apply for membership at Glen Eagle, but, “the black golf courses didn’t have grass greens,” he said. “Just sand that was compacted with oil. It wasn’t the same.”
He set about learning the game; practicing as much as six hours per day after work, and getting by on four to six hours of sleep. Within ten months, he had gone from a 24 handicap to 13 and qualified to enter the Sherwood Open. To everyone’s surprise, including his own, Tavengwa won that tournament and went on to make a name for himself in Zimbabwe’s golfing circles. He was selected to be one of four blacks on Zimbabwe’s national golfing team, but almost missed his first international tournament in neighboring Zambia because he didn’t have a passport. “I had never even been to the airport,” he said. “Thankfully, they quickly issued me a passport, and I made the flight. It was my first plane ride; no one in my family had ever been on a plane or been out of the country before. Even better, the team won and I played well.”
Tavengwa played until 1987, and then quit for the next ten years. “I had problems with anger,” he said. “I couldn’t take being pushed around, especially by Europeans, and I was afraid I would hurt someone on the course.”
He says he became a Seventh Day Adventist during the hiatus, and started a family. But, he said, what he really wanted to do was teach golf, especially to young black Zimbabweans. In 1997, just as Zimbabwe’s economy was going into the toilet and politically motivated violence took an ugly turn upward, Tavengwa returned to golf. He joined the Police Golf Club in Harare and started working on his game. When he decided to turn professional so he could teach, many golfers, white and black, objected because, he was told, of his reputation as a hothead. The president of the Zimbabwe Golf Association, however, insisted that unless someone could provide conclusive proof, there was no justification to reject his application, and in 1999, he was awarded his pro card.
Since then, Jimmy Tavengwa has been giving golf lessons at the Brookfields Golf Range in Harare to anyone who wants to learn. His students are black and white, although he laments that not as many young black Zimbabweans as he would like to see are being attracted to the game. More than sixty percent of his students are women, and a fourth are kids. His youngest student is two and a half years old, and his oldest is 82.
Jimmy Tavengwa, even at 65, looks like an athlete. Trim and fit, he can still hit nearly 300 meter drives. When you talk to him, you find it hard to believe he was ever a hothead. He credits golf, martial arts, and his religion with helping him learn to control his temper. He also sees golf as one of the unexploited resources of his country. “On the golf course, everyone is equal,” he said. “If we promoted golf in Zimbabwe, it would help people to heal many of the wounds of the past.” He is happy to see that current coalition government Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai is an avid supporter of the game. The prime minister was instrumental, he said, in getting the Zimbabwe Open returned to the country, and sponsors an annual charity golf tournament at Royal Harare Golf Club in Harare.
From hothead youth who refused to be told what he couldn’t do, to sober instructor, Jimmy Tavengwa is the face of what Zimbabwe could be if the political leadership would only pay attention.