Golf | 26 Jun 2017 | By Michael Vlismas

When sports transformation is about more than quotas

| Photo by Heinrich Helmbold

I was privileged to sit down with Ilhaam Groenewald, Chief Director of Maties Sport, recently as part of a wide-ranging discussion around sport and the role of women in the industry. But it is what she said about transformation that really struck me, and which I believe again highlighted the successful approach being taken by South African golf.

In 1999, Johann Rupert founded the South African Golf Development Board (SAGDB), which after a few years became the official body for all development initiatives within South African golf. The Ernie Els and Fancourt Foundation (EEFF) was formed in the same year, and together these two organisations have done much not only for golf development, but also setting a benchmark for giving back in South African golf. There is not a single high profile South African golfer that doesn’t either have his own development academy or contributes to charity in some form.

But it has been the role the SAGDB has played in redefining what is possible when it comes to true transformation in golf that serves as a model for any other sport in this country. And it resonates with much of what Groenewald believes effective transformation in sport should be all about.

“I was part of the first draft of the transformation charter with SASCOC so I believe it’s a very good document. Having said that, each one of us needs to take that document and make sense of it within our own environment,” said Groenewald.
“It’s about leadership. If transformation does not come from the heart, it’s not going to happen. You’ve got to find the leadership that is willing to work with you and make it happen.”

Most significantly, Greoenwald believes transformation is not just a numbers or quotas game.

“We need to move away from the numbers game only. We need to look at the qualitative aspect of transformation. What difference can we make in the lives of young people? Going back to school sport, it needs to be about education as well. The manner in which we deal with it will have an impact on how we influence their thinking. That’s core.
“Transformation cannot just always be looked at as this demographic issue. The qualitative issues are not being focused on. That leadership needs to also change the culture of that environment. Transformation is a strategic imperative of this country, but there has to be a holistic approach to it as well.”

The concept of applying a more holistic approach to sporting transformation is one that has been perfected by the SAGDB.

The organisation is currently active in all 14 golf unions. It has 2 300 children between the ages of 7 and 18 in its programmes and 70 coaches nationwide.

Their philosophy has always been one of unearthing and developing new golf talent, particularly in underprivileged areas. But at the same time creating better people. The benefit of this is that if golf for some reason never features in the child’s future, you still send into the world an individual with far better skills to do something in life than they ever would have if left to their own devices.

This approach stands out from the traditional view of sporting transformation because it places as much emphasis on creating better human beings as it does on creating better golfers.

In describing what it takes to win Majors, Jack Nicklaus said, “Great things require great people”. Similarly, if you use golf correctly to make great people, they will do great things.

So the SAGDB and its managers around the country are as in touch with their pupils’ swing planes as they are with their school marks. A typical SAGDB manager will be in regular contact with the headmaster of the school his pupils attend as well as their parents.

Quite simply, to remain in the SAGDB programme, you need to stay in school. This is true transformation of an individual through sport.

“The kids come from school, do their homework and then we practice for about two hours,” explains Samuel Lukhele, the SAGDB coach for the Riverside Farm chapter in Mpumalanga.
“They love it. On the days they don’t go to school, they’ll just practice all day if they can. But we don’t just focus on their golf. We try and develop them socially as well. We have an excellent relationship with the teachers and principal at their school.
“Golf changed my life. I’m so thankful for what the SAGDB has done for us. The kids are well behaved, and their parents are also thankful. Golf has changed the lives of these children.”

Edwin Compton, the Mpumalanga Development Manager for the SAGDB, is just as passionate about the change he has seen in the children’s lives.

“It’s awesome to see them improve not only as golfers but as human beings as well. The discipline of golf improves their school work and other areas of their life.”

Millie Zim, the SAGDB coach for the Border region, has a similar message.

“We can show the teachers how it benefits the kids in their schoolwork if they’re involved in the golf programme. They become more disciplined and their attitude changes. Most of these kids come from shacks where they have no positive role models. Golf teaches them life skills, not just how to play the game.”

There are enough stories about the challenges faced by the young golfers within the SAGDB.

There are young golfers who are the head of their households and wake up at midnight in order to start a fire so they can boil hot water for their siblings, and to be ready themselves for when the local SAGDB manager arrives to pick them up at 2am and then travels far and wide to the next house – all so they can make it in time to their local junior tournament.

“Just how somebody like this overcomes his daily challenges in life astounds me,” the SAGDB’s Limpopo manager Jean Sadie once told me.
“For most of us, our alarm goes off at 5am and we’re out of the house at 5:30am to get to the golf course. But not for these children. We just don’t understand the commitment they show to the game. You can find talent. There’s plenty of talent out there. But you rarely find this kind of passion for golf.”

Similarly, South Africa is blessed with a wealth of golf coaches who often go the extra mile for their pupils.

“They care about us,” one young golfer told me at an SAGDB clinic in East London when I asked him why he loved attending the clinics with his local coach.

The SAGDB’s Gauteng coach Obed Matlou has his own very pragmatic approach to golf development, and it begins with a meal.

“When I want to get kids to the driving range, I make sure they have two things – transport and food. There was one time where I told the kids on a Friday that we have transport to take them to a golf course to play on the Saturday. I told them they must each bring something to eat on Saturday morning. So that next morning, I see all the kids have brought food except this one little girl. I said to her, ‘Hey man, what’s wrong with you? Didn’t you listen? Where’s your food?’ And she said to me, ‘Coach, I’m sorry, we couldn’t afford supper last night.’ Hell. That broke my heart. I bought a loaf of brown bread for her, and this little girl ate that whole loaf except for one slice.
“The worst I saw was this one house where three kids I teach stay. I sat there for 40 minutes talking to the parents. On the stove was a pot of boiling water. It boiled like that for 40 minutes, with nothing in it. The mother was just trying to make as if she was going to cook something, but you could see it was hell there. They had no food in that house. So I took out R50 and gave it to the mother to buy food. She said to me, ‘How did you know?’ And I told her, ‘Man, I grew up like this.’ I was one of seven kids. We grew up with no food in the house, so I know the signs. That R50 fed her family for a week.”

It’s this kind of dedication to their cause that Grant Hepburn, Managing Director of the SAGDB, says is the backbone of the success the SAGDB has achieved over the years.

“Our success is having coaches who give so much more than they are paid for, and who are passionate about the youth of this country.”

And at the highest level, the significant influence of founder Johann Rupert ensures incredible support for the organisation, even globally where golf bodies such as the Royal and Ancient and the Scottish Golf Union as well as European Tour events such as the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship and then major international companies contribute to the SAGDB’s efforts through generous donations.

Even at Leopard Creek, the course built by Rupert and which is regularly ranked as the number one course in South Africa and a host of several professional tournaments over the years, the young SAGDB golfers from Mpumalanga are given free access to a new practice facility there that leading professionals have described as better than what you would find at Augusta National Golf Club.

Rupert built the practice facility especially for golf development purposes. The facility does not belong to Leopard Creek and is used by the SAGDB National Squad and GolfRSA (the custodian of all amateur golf in South Africa) National Squad for their training camps.

The SAGDB’s success hasn’t gone unnoticed outside of South Africa either.

Leading Indian professional Jeev Milkha Singh is a great admirer of the South African formula for golf development. “The South African development golf programme is one of the best in the world and one I wish my own country would follow,” he said.

Swedish professional Joel Sjöholm recognised something from his own life when he helped at an SAGDB golf clinic during the Joburg Open once year.

“I do these clinics because I got a shortcut,” said Sjöholm, who was taken from a life of poverty in Santiago, Chile, and adopted by Swedish parents when he was three months old.
“If my parents never adopted me I would probably have been struggling just like one of these kids, or even worse.”
And he summed up exactly golf’s true transformative power when he added, “Hopefully the kids can see that we’re not just trying to play golf. We’re also trying to create something better together as professionals. We want to make a difference.”

As Groenewald pointed out, when sporting transformation comes from the heart, then teaching golf can also mean feeding a child for one day with a sandwich and a banana, or helping them do better at school.

And this is when golf has given them something far greater than just a great swing.