In S. Africa, golf goes public

At World of Golf in Johannesburg, 57 percent of new golfers are women and 37 percent are black.

Here in the homeland of Retief Goosen, Ernie Els, and Gary Player, golf, perhaps even more than in other places, has long been an elitist sport for rich white guys. Back in apartheid days, blacks were legally barred from playing on nearly every course. Besides, few blacks could afford the expensive pastime anyway.

But that was then.

Now, in the post-apartheid era, the upwardly mobile masses of the Rainbow Nation are getting in the swing of things. Golf-club memberships are swelling with new legions of BMW-driving black executives, many of whom are benefiting from the country's intense affirmative-action programs. Even President Thabo Mbeki is taking lessons - after his central bank governor urged him to get out on the links to woo global corporate titans to invest in South Africa.

In fact, golf has become the new status sport among black salespeople, lawyers, accountants, and politicians - and a symbol of the rising aspirations of a country increasingly aiming to compete economically and politically on the world stage.

"We're moving into places we were historically deprived of," says Patricia de Lille, a prominent opposition member of Parliament. When not lobbing rhetorical bombs at Mr. Mbeki's ruling party, she's out on the links, using her new set of custom-made clubs. "I want to become the best politician golfer in South Africa," she says. She's got tough competition. These days, Mbeki celebrates the annual opening of Parliament with a high-profile round of golf. Dozens of fellow pols tag along.

But nowhere are the golfing aspirations of a nation more evident than at a sprawling facility just off one of Johannesburg's six-lane highways - a place called "World of Golf." It bills itself as the planet's only "golf theme park."

It's McDonald's Playland meets municipal golf course. For about $15, or a $40 monthly membership, golfers can practice any kind of shot at specialty areas - "World of Pitching," "World of Chipping," the nine-hole "Wedge & Putt" course, or the all-you-can-hit driving range. TVs in the bar area showed Retief Goosen's progress at the British Open over the weekend.

The facility's multicultural patrons are more likely to be clad in T-shirts and cargo pants than argyles and knickers. Footwear tends to be tennis shoes or flip-flops. Kids too young to swing clubs can hang out at the Little Tigers Playzone.

This is golf for the masses.

Many customers on a recent Saturday were taking their first lessons as part of "Golf 4 All" - a 12-step program for going from golf zero to hero in three months. Of the 8,000 who've finished the program in the past five years, 57 percent are women and 37 percent of are black.

Explaining one of the reasons why golf doesn't need to be as intimidating and elitist as it's been in the past, the program's CEO, Mervyn Solomon, says: "Golf is the only sport where you're competitive as long as you're honest." The individual handicap-scoring system enables novices and experts to play together in a sport that's really about "competing with yourself," says the sometime coach to Mbeki.

Mr. Solomon says the president called this week, ready for another lesson. "I'm sorry, Mr. President, I just can't do it tomorrow," he had to tell him, citing a crush of newcomers.

One measure of golf's growth is the number of memberships at the nation's clubs. In the 1990s, it rose by just 10,000 people, to 100,000. But between 2000 and 2004, it grew to 124,000, from 100,000, according to the South African Golf Association. That doesn't account for those who aren't quite ready - or can't afford - membership, people like Khanya Magubane.

The trim black 30-something, practicing his drives at World of Golf, has taken one lesson. Standing in his Levis jeans and plastic Nike sandals, the property lawyer explains why he started the new hobby: "I had a big client I was supposed to entertain - a golf fanatic."

When the client suggested a day on the links, Mr. Magubane had to decline because he'd never played. "I wasn't happy about that," he says. So he scrambled to get golfing.

He hasn't told people at his firm. But in three months, after "Golf 4 All," he'll suggest outings. It's part of his overall strategy of personal improvement. Now, for instance, he drives a blue Toyota. Within a year, he says, "It'll be a BMW."

For millions who live in poverty, golf is far out of reach, as it was for Morobi Rammala, during his growing-up years in a poor township. He played rugby in a dirt lot. "Golf was for rich guys," he says.

But now "it's a prerequisite for business," says the black information-technology salesman. "It will make closing the deal a lot easier." He's now taken five lessons.

To his surprise, he loves it - although he won't mention that to his township friends, who might see him as a sellout. He's already got his eyes on a set of new clubs, he says, because "it's a great peace-of-mind kind of sport."

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