Eighteen years ago I boarded a plane in Johannesburg bound for Miami to compete at three junior events: the Doral Publix Championship, the Junior Orange Bowl and the David Leadbetter Invitational. It was my first overseas trip alone, aged 17.
I may have mentioned in a previous column about my habitual writing, doodling and dream-catching in idle moments. Combine that with a partial fear of flying and throw in the fact this Delta aircraft’s 36-hour flightpath went over an ocean and the jungles of West Africa and you have the beginning of a story which not even that youngster in row 47 that night, with a Creed CD loaded in his Discman, ever saw happening.
As the tyres hit the runway in Miami the next day, a sense of relief washed over me, before the dreaded introduction to customs and immigration in the US became my new reality. It was a tense time in the US in December 2001 but my passport photo from age five in a long-expired passport, accompanied by a single A4 piece of paper acting as an ‘emergency travel document’ from my homeland of Zimbabwe, was about to make things more complicated.
I am still not sure if it was the sellotaped photograph (current day), or the blue ink which had scratched out the typed print expiration validity of ‘21 days’ to read ‘six months’ on my travel document which landed me in the Homeland Security screening room of Miami International. The immigration official’s exhausted response was simply: ‘Dude, are you serious?’
Hours later, a change of the guard meant that an older and friendlier official with a Southern drawl took over, and ‘crew-cut Joe’ left the building. She sympathised with my plight and took it upon herself to call the Zimbabwe embassy in New York to validate the legitimacy of this ‘emergency travel doc’. The green light was given.
After signing the release docket for my bags at lost and found and a Miami ‘rush-hour’ taxi ride to the Banana Bungalows Backpackers, I arrived in South Beach. Between playing every day at either Doral’s ‘Blue Monster’ or the Biltmore and visiting the global headquarters of the David Leadbetter Academy at ChampionGate, I was in golfing heaven. There was also a Hooters restaurant in our street. Life was sweet again.
The golf went pretty well and I made the cut at Doral, followed by a 29th place at the Orange Bowl and 16th at the Leadbetter Invitational. The following year was even better, as I returned on a valid passport and finished seventh at the Doral Junior and fourth at the Orange Bowl in a tie with a Spanish player (more of whom later). Travel plans and a tight budget restricted me from playing at the Leadbetter Invitational that year but it’s funny how life works out.
The first of my overseas golf travels was in 2000, when I went to Scotland accompanied by my dad, Terry, aka ‘TC’. The Junior Open Championship was held in St Andrews at the lesser-known links called Craighead & Balcomie. The event
ran into The Open Championship week, so all the junior participants and their parents were fortunate enough to witness Tiger’s win from inside the ropes.
Eighteen years is a long time for a story to come full circle, but it was during the third round of that Open, when a few of us were sitting on a bank near the driving range grandstand, that I noticed David Leadbetter on the range. To his left, chatting away with him like they were long-lost pals was my dad. It turns out they knew each other from 20 years earlier having both grown up in Zimbabwe.
Sitting next to me that day was the Junior Open’s Spanish representative and the same Spaniard from earlier in this story. The 18-year ‘loop’ closed recently, in Harare, as I googled David Leadbetter. His website features 39 academies worldwide. Scrolling through and realising the scale of his global enterprise I started doubting why one of the world’s most successful golf coaches would consider what I was preparing to ask him. My wife and I had recently moved back to Zimbabwe and opened The Pro Shop franchise at Royal Harare Golf Club as a ‘fourball’ comprising two fathers and two sons, a real-life family business. Part of our agreement with the club was to open a golf academy and develop the game from grassroots level again in Zimbabwe.
I typed, deleted and retyped a letter to David. Zimbabwe being once globally revered for its ‘pound for pound’ fighting weight is a distant memory. More than a dozen courses have closed down, memberships are shrinking and the uptake of new golfers is at an all-time low. The message between the lines of the ‘submit enquiry’ box that day was in its simplest form, a cry for help.
Leadbetter signed off his first email to me as ‘David L’ and the message from the Leadbetter Golf Academy’s founder and Hall of Fame inductee in reply to that enquiry form was received a couple of days later: ‘Let’s do it!’ The Leadbetter Golf Academy of Zimbabwe, which will be his first facility in Africa, opens doors early in the new year at the very club he started his own golfing journey.
You can find out more by visiting: leadbetterzimbabwe.com
I’m still friends with that Spanish player: he has come a long way. His name is Rafa Cabrera-Bello, a Leadbetter-coached European Tour winner and Ryder Cup player. Rafa doesn’t know it yet, but he will soon receive a message to become a patron and mentor to Zimbabwe’s elite junior golfers. Still feeling bad for throwing me under the bus with an embarrassingly recited Spanish phrase during that Junior Open week nearly 20 years ago, I’m sure he will jump at the opportunity to inspire the next generation of starry-eyed internationals for their overseas adventures.