By Lali Stander
Another young South African women’s golfer is hurrying her way up the rankings
As Lejan Lewthwaite winds her way to my table in the far corner of the verandah at Royal Cape Golf Club, I watch her with interest. She flashes that Colgate smile as the Mexican wave and many hellos is interrupted with stop and a peal of laughter. The 20m walk takes nearly 10 minutes and when she finally flops down in a chair opposite me, it signals that Lejan Lewthwaite has arrived. Quite literally.
When Lewthwaite pitched on the Hibiscus Coast for the SA Women’s Open in late-November, Nicole Garcia was the only professional in the field who knew the Benoni golfer.
But the bubbly blonde with the powerful swing quickly put the Sunshine Ladies Tour regulars on notice when she chased top ranked Lee-Anne Pace to the finish line at San Lameer Country Club.
Lewthwaite’s runner-up performance was impressive and three months later, the 24-year-old rookie still excites as she continues to establish herself as one of South Africa’s future champions.
The sports nut played provincial tennis and hockey for Eastern Transvaal since primary school and the self-confessed water baby was just 14 years old when she donned the green and gold for South Africa in the Optimist European Sailing Championships in Poland.
‘My cousins lived on the estate at Centurion Country Club and I used to stay with them in the school holidays,’ Lewthwaite said. ‘We fooled around on the golf course and I loved it. I was about 12 and got my first set of Little Tiger golf clubs at the age of 13. I didn’t start playing seriously, though, until I was 17. That’s when the golf bug bit me hard and golf became my main objective.’
Although Lewthwaite still competed at provincial level in the other sports throughout high school, every free moment was devoted to sharpening her golf game at the Lake Club Benoni.
She attended the Gavan Levenson Academy post matric and just as she was starting to make an impression on the local amateur circuit, an unexpected offer from Texas State University arrived.
‘They offered me a golf scholarship and I jumped at the chance,’ she said. ‘To be able to play for the Bobcats on the US college circuit and get a degree was something I never imaged.”
After a four-year stint in the US and a cum laude BSc Degree in Exercise and Sport Science, Lewthwaite arrived home with the intention of playing the SA Women’s Open as a pro.
‘I thought I could just rock up and tell them I’m a pro now, but I should have done my homework. You actually have to apply in writing and submit your stats and then a committee decides whether you are fit to turn pro. So I had to play the SA Women’s Open as an amateur.’
Lewthwaite put a loud exclamation point on her last amateur outing with her sole second-place finish.
Although she could have earned R30 000 as a pro after finishing just four strokes shy of Pace, seeing her name etched besides those of LPGA Tour players Ashleigh Simon, Bertine Strauss and Ladies European Tour campaigner Kim Williams on the Jackie Mercer Trophy was reward enough.
‘It was such an experience to play with Lee-Anne and Kim in the final round,’ Lewthwaite said.
‘I think it was providence that I couldn’t turn pro. I had the chance to test my game against them and it held up under huge pressure. That alone convinced me that I was ready to leave the amateur ranks and I couldn’t possible have finished my amateur career on a much higher note.’
We are at the halfway mark of the season. What’s the status report?
My two goals this season are to finish in the top 10 on the Sunshine Ladies Tour so I can qualify for the R1-million finale and raise the funds to go to the First Stage Qualifier for the LPGA Tour in August. So far, so good. I haven’t produced any fireworks yet, but I’ve had some really good rounds and I’m seventh in the Chase to the Investec Cup for Ladies and looking good for Millvale in March.
What part of your game is your strength and what do you need to improve to get better results?
I think playing the college circuit in the US taught me great mental strength and determination. I had to become independent quickly and learn to trust my instincts. We did a lot of travelling to golf tournaments and that exposure definitely helps. Playing in the US also taught me to never give up until that last putt drops, no matter how bad my round is going.
I don’t have a really weak side to my game, but there is always going to be some swing technique to work on to gain that extra bit of accuracy or consistency.
Let’s talk about your love for water.
I love surfing and I would probably live by the sea and surf for a living if there was any money in it. Surfing is my favourite thing. It’s ironic that after the SA Women’s Open we went down to our holiday spot in Plettenberg Bay and I injured my foot and couldn’t surf for a few weeks. I loved sailing, too, but again, it’s an expensive hobby and it doesn’t pay much as a job.
You are a bit of a busy bee. What do you like doing and what’s still on the bucket list?
I’m at my happiest when I keep busy and I’m really competitive. Whether it’s hiking, sandboarding, playing table tennis or poker with the family and friends; any competition and I’m in. There is still a bunch of things I want to do. I still want to learn to play the piano and scuba dive; I still want to go sky diving and do a bungee jump. I want to go watch a Wimbledon final, the Masters and the Ryder Cup.
Who are your role models?
There are a lot of people I admire, but my real role models are my parents. They both show me endless support and love, so much that I could never be entirely thankful for. They have always pushed me to follow my dreams, and it is with the same hard work that they possess that I plan to accomplish my goals and dreams. My other firm favourite is Serena Williams. She’s a top female sporting icon with incredible strength, will and power and she advocates for all sportswomen.
With all that travelling in the US, what were your best and worst travel experiences?
The best were definitely visiting Hawaii, especially getting the chance to surf there, going to Las Vegas where we attended a David Guetta concert and played Black Jack at the Bellagio, and seeing the Big Apple. I also enjoyed playing golf in Vail, Colorado, visiting Miami and checking out all the millionaire’s yachts in Florida. The worst – when we went camping in December and it rained the entire holiday.
What did you miss the most about South Africa while you studied in the USA?
Real South African braais and bobotie.
If they announced you with a song at the first tee, what would they play?
It will be Katy Perry’s Roar, the Brillz Remix.
Let’s see if you are a romantic, an idealist or the practical type? If you were stranded on a desert island, what three items would you take with you and why?
Oh, I’m definitely a pragmatist. I’d take the essentials to survive: a machete, matches and a pot to boil water and cook.
How would you describe yourself in one word?
If you were granted three wishes, what would you ask for?
I only need two. To own a house at the coast, where I could surf in my free time and to have the funds to stay in the US and compete on the LPGA Tour.
If they made a movie about your life, which actress would you pick to play you and why?
That should be obvious. Definitely Charlize Theron. She’s blonde, brilliant and from Benoni!
Finally, what advice would you give youngsters just starting in the game?
If you want it, go and get it! Work hard, never give up and don’t let anybody tell you ‘You can’t’.
PARK ON THE RISE
Womens Golf South Africa Golfer of the Year for 2013 Carrie Park made her mark as an amateur on the 2015 Sunshine Ladies Tour with a second-, third- and sixth-place finish in events at Houghton, Glendower and Blue Valley.
The South Korean golfer prepared for her rookie debut in the SA Women’s Open last year by competing against the men on the IGT Tour for five months and she raised a lot of eyebrows when she upstaged Sunshine Ladies Tour winners Kim Williams and Monique Smit with a third-place finish at San Lameer Country Club.
Over her next three starts, the 19-year-old Park reeled in top-10 finishes in the Ladies Joburg Open and Ladies Tshwane Open and took fourth in the Chase to the Investec Cup for Ladies at Houghton.
Heading to the fifth event at Royal Cape, Park was determined to protect her fourth-place ranking in the Chase to the Investec Cup for Ladies with another solid showing in the Cape Town Ladies Open.
‘My coach Graeme Francis taught me that golf is a marathon, not a 100m sprint,’ Park said.
‘It took time before I started winning on the amateur circuit and some more time before I reached the No 1 ranking. I know I will need to pay my dues in the paid ranks, too, before I will start winning, so my main goal for this year is to keep consistent and try and make the top 10 for the Chase to the Investec Cup. And then we’ll carry on building from there.’
Park took up golf at the age of 12 and learned the game on a driving range in South Korea. When her father visited South Africa in 2012, he was impressed with the local amateur circuit. He enrolled her as a boarder at Southdowns College in Centurion and put GFG Academy coach Francis in charge of her career. Within a couple of years, Park dominated the local amateur circuit and rose to the No 1 spot in the WGSA rankings. She lived up to her star billing when she captured the Sanlam SA Amateur Stroke Play Championship in April 2014 and 12 months later, joined Ashleigh Simon, Kim Williams and Swaziland’s Nobuhle Dlamini as a ‘double’ winner when she defeated GFG Academy stable-mate for victory in the Sanlam SA Women’s Amateur Championship.