Durban — Described as a maestro of the “pigeon-egg sized ball and stick game”, golfer Lawrence Buthelezi, made his mark on the green.
Buthelezi, 88, who died last month after a long battle with illness, rose from caddy duties as a schoolboy to help feed his family, to competing with the world’s best golfers in the 1970 British Open on golf’s hallowed ground, the St Andrews golf course in Scotland.
Jack Nicklaus won the event, which included Gary Player and Papwa Sewgolum, in his last Open Championship, as participants.
Having slugged it out with a premier crop of golfers at the Open, a lingering question for many was what Buthelezi would have achieved had he not entered the game via the back door, received proper mentorship and equal opportunities.
Buthelezi worked as a salesman for the well-known Stellenbosch Farmers Winery company for more than 30 years. On one of his road trips, he sustained a career-damaging injury during a car crash that ended his golfing dreams.
Having derived much joy and respect as a seasoned golfer, Buthelezi offered his golfing expertise to anyone who asked for assistance and he was very involved with developing the game in initiatives that involved schools, especially in Umlazi and Chatsworth.
Buthelezi was laid to rest in an Howick graveyard last week, where his siblings, wife and child were buried previously.
Howick is the KZN Midlands town where it all began for Buthelezi.
According to his daughter Brenda, he grew up in an area called “George Ross”, but he and his family were relocated to the Mpophomeni township for black people, late in the 1960s.
Attending high school was not a luxury that Buthelezi’s family could afford because of their dire financial circumstances. Some of them worked on local farms.
Their meagre earnings had to be supplemented and Buthelezi made his contribution by working part-time as a caddy at the local Howick Golf Club.
When he reflected on his life, caddying proved to be a pivotal move.
Although he had to eventually drop out of school, his full-time caddying job not only gave him the opportunity to hone his golfing skills, it also paved the way for his employment with the winery group.
The trajectory of Buthelezi’s life hit the up and up from the time he met “Mr Henning”, said Brenda.
Mr Henning, who worked as a salesman for the winery group (previously known as Gilbeys), was an avid golfer who frequented the Howick golf course.
Buthelezi became his preferred caddie.
“My father developed a close bond with Mr Henning, which was beneficial for him. He became his caddie and Mr Henning then hired him as his personal driver.
“He helped my father with his golf skills and when he relocated to Pinetown, he recommended my father replace him.”
Buthelezi was with the company from 1961 until his retirement in 1993.
Brenda said he was very passionate about golf but was unfortunate not to get the opportunities to advance his game.
“He was not allowed free access to local facilities, like all people of colour back then. They could only use the facilities on certain days and times.”
To play in a tournament in Durban, Brenda said Buthelezi once made the long trek from Howick on foot.
“That meant spending the night sleeping in the bushes as he walked towards Durban. That was a good example of my dad’s persistence and determination.
“I’m pretty sure the golf clubs he had early on would have been donated to him.
He played in many tournaments with a lot of success and trophies from events, and donated some of his trophies to people staging development events.
“My dad played with people like Papwa Sewgolum, Gary Player and Vincent Tshabalala in the latter stages of his career, he was also invited to a round of golf with a former US ambassador in Durban.”
She said her father suspected scorecards of players' colour were tampered with, which was one of the downsides of playing golf in that era.
“It affected where they finished because they played for prize money and trophies.”
She said when he spoke about qualifying for the British Open he did so with fondness.
“He also got to visit Buckingham palace and toured the UK.
“That trip opened doors for him.”
Brenda said he went on overseas trips and visited various parts of the African continent thereafter to play golf.
An article in the “SaveMor Guild” published in September 1971 described him as “Natal’s top African golfer”, who was a maestro of the game played with a pigeon-egg sized ball and stick.
In the same article Buthelezi was quoted saying Sewgolum was the “greatest black golfer”.
In his book “Blazing the Trail; Celebrating 90 years of black golf in Southern Africa”, author Barry Cohen said Buthelezi was the first Zulu to play in St Andrews and in the Open.
Playing golf exposed Buthelezi to how well-off people lived and that sparked his aspiration to provide his family with a better quality of life than what he had been accustomed to while growing up.
“He was a very strict man. Unlike other kids growing in the township of Umlazi, we were not allowed to be out playing, but he was funny and family oriented.
“My dad was a respected member of our community and a father figure to many (home, community and church), we can’t get used to him not being around.
“At his funeral, the Methodist church lit a burner in honour of all his contributions.”
She said he attempted to get her siblings and her interested in golf, and none of his nine grandchildren have excelled at the game either.
“Maybe one of his great-grandchildren will succeed at golf.”
Brenda said it was unfortunate that the local golfing fraternity hadn’t done much to recognise his contribution to the game
Petrus Mbewu, Buthelezi’s former colleague, said he was a fantastic man who made others aware of their rights and was passionate about whatever he did.
“He was also a golfer of note.
“He was in a car accident (1980s) near Nottingham Road (Midlands) that left him unable to play golf as he did before and told me how disappointed he was because of the opportunities playing golf brought him.”
Mbewu said Buthelezi taught many people the game without expecting anything in return.
“Apartheid has robbed many people of many things. Had Lawrence been playing with the current generation of players, he would be playing on the world stage.