South Africa’s Forgotten Champion

The Ottawa Citizen has a very interesting article on Papwa Sewgolum, an illiterate native of Durban, who some say may have been the best golfer South Africa has ever seen.

High praise, considering the accomplishments of Gary Player.

During the prime of Mr. Player’s career there was another South African who was his equal on the links, who defeated him in 1965 at a sensational provincial open championship in Durban and who won several European championships. Papwa Sewgolum was the great-grandson of an indentured labourer from India, an impoverished illiterate who possessed prodigious amounts of raw talent. Had he been permitted by the apartheid regime to play the game at the same level, with similar advantages as Mr. Player and other white golfers, there is no telling what he might have accomplished.

Mr. Sewgolum could have left his home in Durban’s suburbs to play professional golf overseas, where racism was less overt. But he was a sweet, simple man who hated travelling. His life and career thus became portraits of the evil apartheid did. The regime crushed him bit by bit, in a myriad of ways. And it happened while Mr. Player golfed with prime minister Johannes Vorster, the symbol of everything apartheid represented.

The article reminds me in some ways of the speculation that surrounds the potential of various Negro League Players. How good would Josh Gibson or Buck O’Neil have been if given a chance to play in the bigs? We’ll never know.

Ultimately, Sewgolum’s story, and that of the Negro League players, is a sad one. I don’t think there’s anything as tragic as great potential wasted.

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