This 36-year-old Zambian has all the talent and now needs a little bit of good fortune to help him progress, writes MICHAEL VLISMAS.
Sometimes it takes an older brother to put things into perspective for you.
As Madalitso Muthiya was reflecting on his seventh-place finish at last year’s South African Open hosted by the City of Joburg after he had threatened a breakthrough victory at this major European Tour event, he got an SMS from his brother.
‘You’re the real winner of the SA Open,’ the message said. ‘You have no support, no sponsor, no swing coaches or mental gurus, no nutritionist. And for four days you went toe-to-toe with some of the best players in the world.’
His words were spot on. The 36-year-old Zambian surprised many, except himself, with a performance that captured the attention of golf fans from around the world, including as far as Asia, Spain and the US.
‘Receiving all those messages was pretty amazing. People were taking videos of the TV footage they were watching and sending it to me – people from Africa and the rest of the world,’ says Muthiya.
They watched him come through the first round one stroke behind leader Louis Oosthuizen. They were inspired when he finished day two chasing another Major champion, only one stroke behind the new leader, Charl Schwartzel. And they continued to hope when through 54 holes Muthiya was still well placed, only three shots off the lead of Oosthuizen, and in a group including Schwartzel and a world top-50 player and multiple tournament winner in Matt Wallace.
The surprise to some, though, was merely a confirmation in Muthiya’s own mind of where he needs to be in the game.
‘I truly believe I have a lot to improve on and achieve. I’m only scratching the surface of my goals. The SA Open showed me I need to be on that stage and get back to that level again,’ says Muthiya, as he recalls a history in the game many golf fans aren’t aware of.
Growing up in Zambia, Muthiya had a by no means privileged upbringing. But he was surrounded with love and support from his parents. ‘My parents worked hard to provide the best they could for us. They fully supported what my siblings and I wanted to do, but education was always at a premium in our family.’
It was his late father who introduced Muthiya to golf at the age of six. The discipline involved in the game resonated with a man who believed this to be the key to a successful life, and who instilled it in all his children. So much so, that for the first three years of his golf education, Muthiya was taught only the rules of golf and etiquette and not allowed to play on an 18-hole course.
‘My late father was the facilitator of everything. I had the passion, and he aided me in the right direction with junior and amateur golf and exposing me to international competition. It was definitely a disciplined and structured exposure to the game.’
At the age of 16 he was invited to play at an American Junior Golf Association tournament – the 1999 Nolan Henke/Patty Berg Junior Masters in Florida. He won his age category, and the college scouts came calling.
‘I had offers for full scholarships to California, Stanford and Washington. I chose the University of New Mexico because I wanted to major in economics.’
With a top-class education always a priority for Muthiya, he does admit that becoming a professional golfer was a long-standing goal.
‘I decided when I was 13 I was going to play professional golf. My father sat me down after I had won a few junior tournaments and asked what I wanted to do with my life. I told him I wanted to turn pro and play the PGA Tour. He was very honest with me. He said I had an immense talent, and because of this he would be very hard on me, which he was.’
Their close relationship meant Muthiya was devastated when his father passed away with pneumonia when the young golfer was still at college.
‘I was 19 years old and I was going into my second year of university when he passed away. We were lucky in that we have a very strong mother, and my father had taught us all the basics of life and to stand on our own two feet. But it was very tough losing him.
‘I think it’s because of this that I feel I maybe underachieved in college golf and was a bit inconsistent. I was always on the first team and had a number of second- and third-place finishes. But the passing of my father threw me off quite a bit. I still graduated, though, but had a tough time trying to find my way in golf again and adjusting to him not being there.’
After graduating, Muthiya spent two years playing on the Canadian Tour and then made it through to the final stage of qualifying for the PGA Tour, but wasn’t able to earn a card. At the same time he became the first Zambian to qualify for and play at the 2006 US Open at Winged Foot, where he missed the cut. He’d secured himself a place on the Web.com Tour, and had built up a solid body of experience of top-flight golf in the US, including playing at two US Amateurs, at Oakland Hills and Winged Foot.
‘I had seen enough to believe there was no reason I couldn’t play on the PGA Tour. I remember going to watch the Byron Nelson tournament in Dallas. Tommy Armour III arranged a practice round for me. I was supposed to play with Tiger Woods, but he arrived late. So I ended up playing with Tommy and Vijay Singh, who was No 1 in the world at the time. I’d also already played at three PGA Tour events. I’ve always conditioned my mind to be playing on that level. So the SA Open was just confirmation again that I need to get back to that level again. I feel really comfortable on the bigger stage.’
A loss of playing privileges on the Web.com Tour brought Muthiya back to the Sunshine Tour, where he has one victory, at the 2016 Vodacom Origins of Golf at the Wild Coast Sun Country Club. But he’s not the only one who believes he needs to be playing on the bigger Tours.
‘I took a lot of positives from that SA Open, especially from what Louis said to me when we played together. It struck me what a nice guy he is. Charl was also so great when we played together. But Louis was genuinely surprised to hear that I didn’t have any European Tour status. He was impressed with my game and that gives me a lot of confidence.’
This year, Muthiya hopes to take that confidence and turn it into a good enough finish on the Sunshine Tour Order of Merit to secure himself a few invites to European Tour events. He also has a few opportunities to play in Asia.
And as a man with a head for economics, he’ll know full well that all it takes is a bit of momentum before the interest starts kicking in.
– This article first appeared in the March issue of Compleat Golfer