Mazibuko and the incredible weight of dreaming

Irvin Mazibuko stood behind the 18th green at The Links Fancourt and watched the early groups in the opening round of the Vodacom Origins of Golf Final finishing up. He had fired a very respectable one-over-par 74 in the pre-qualifying round at the treacherous home of the 2003 Presidents Cup, and was right in the hunt to make it through to the main tournament. Sadly for him, a flurry of 73s at the death dashed his hopes as he missed out by one stroke. Now he was waiting to head into town that afternoon for a long 18-hour trip home to Thembisa with nothing to show for his efforts.

Mazibuko is one of a group of 94 players who are in category 13 on the Sunshine Tour’s list of exemption categories. These players have to pre-qualify for nearly every event. Pre-qualification is a single round ‘shootout’ that involves anything from 30 to 70 golfers (depending on the event) who compete for a miserly 10 tournament places that are up for grabs. In such a fiercely competitive environment, and under the most intense of pressure, making it through this phase is an achievement in itself. But even once through, a golfer still has to make the two round cut of the main tournament if they are to gain any financial remuneration.

But, for ambitious and talented youngsters, golf seems to be the ticket to untold riches.

It’s one of the fastest growing sports in the world, and South Africa is no exception in this regard. The country boasts a fine array of inspirational figures both past and present. The success, fame and wealth achieved by the likes of Gary Player, Ernie Els and Retief Goosen, and by the new generation in Charl Schwartzel, Louis Oosthuizen and Branden Grace, are things that capture the imagination of any local amateur or professional. To some extent, we all look at their jobs with a degree of envy.

The prize money that is now on offer worldwide also makes it seem all the more attractive as a career, and every youngster who picks up a club dreams of emulating their heroes and reaching similar levels of stardom. After all, it’s golf. It is the sport we all love playing. And doing it for a career is living the dream, isn’t it?

With a career in golf appearing to be such an attractive profession from the outside, many people are drawn in to try their hand at it. Some, with delusions of grandeur, are simply not good enough, and are quickly shown to be wasting their time. Some are so incredibly talented that their careers launch at breakneck speed.

But perhaps the most remarkable story of all is the plight of the capable, but struggling professional. The player who is by no means out of his depth, is on the cusp of breaking through, and is certainly well justified in pursuing his dreams.

But these are also the golfers who pay their dues for years on end with absolutely no guarantees that they will reap the fruits of their labour in the future. In fact, many never do, and invariably they are forced to try and find alternate career paths.

A player who is intimately familiar with such tribulations is Sunshine Tour and Big Easy Tour member Mazibuko. The 34-year-old learnt his trade as a caddie at the Soweto Country Club, and after making significant strides as an amateur, turned pro in the year 2000. He has been a member of the Sunshine Tour ever since.

“I was very keen to study psychology at university, but I didn’t have the money at the time. I felt like golf was my calling, and I decided to back myself and give it my best shot,” said the father of four.

Unfortunately for Mazibuko, he hasn’t been able to make the impact he was hoping for on the Sunshine Tour during his term as a professional. Moreover, he has struggled to gain the earnings to sustain his family. And there are so many talented golfers around the world who find themselves in a similar situation, which really provides a reality check in a sport that is so often associated with riches and glory.

“Pre-Qs are the biggest pressure cookers in golf. There’s only one round and you can’t afford any mistakes. I played really nicely at The Links, but bad holes at nine, 10 and 11 cost me, and, although I pulled it back coming home, it wasn’t enough. And now I catch the bus home, R7,000 poorer,” said Mazibuko.

This astonishing figure of R7,000 certainly sheds light on the exorbitant expenses incurred by journeyman professionals in South Africa. Each tournament they participate in requires them to cover the costs of travel, accommodation, food, caddies, transport and entry fees. In some cases, family or friends who reside near the host golf course can reduce these somewhat, but in most cases, the expense of R7,000 per tournament seems an accurate one.

Like so many of his peers, Mazibuko does not have a sponsor, and foots these bills himself. To give this situation further gravity, the earning potential needs to be taken into account. A look at the results of the recent Vodacom Origins of Golf event in Sishen shows that players who finished in a tie for 21st earned R7,065. This does vary slightly from tournament to tournament, but 25th place seems a fair enough benchmark in winter events on the Sunshine Tour events to attain this “break-even” R7,000 payout. But to add insult to injury, this is a pre-tax figure!

Yet the market is flooded with these aspiring professionals. And, as a result, the competition is fierce. Players must thus put every ounce of energy they have into practicing, training and playing if they are to keep up, and will more than likely surrender any chance they have of making a decent living if their focus is not squarely on what they do. It truly is a full-time job and there is little opportunity for alternative revenue generation.

“I play or practice six days a week, and when I don’t have a club in my hand, I’m looking after my family. I don’t have time for anything else. Golf is my only source of income,” Mazibuko said.

The Sunshine Big Easy Tour presented by Stonehage, a sub-tour which was inaugurated last year, has offered aspiring South African golfers a lifeline, and gives them an opportunity to consistently play competitive golf without having to pre-qualify.

“The Big Easy Tour has been a very good thing for me and so many others. The fact that they are two round events keeps me up to speed with tournament golf, and has helped me with learning to put scores together. The only down side is the money – you can’t make a living forever playing there,” said Mazibuko.

And he is absolutely right. The new initiative has worked well and given the players invaluable experience. But other than the Big Easy Tour Championship, each event has a total purse of just R100,000, with a first prize pay-out of R14,000. Prize money was paid down to 30th place in a field that included some amateurs as well. Indeed, this tour is a great stepping stone, but hardly a place to earn a sustainable livelihood.

Golf is a sport that is so addictive, and all amateurs continue to torture themselves and persevere with this frustrating game, despite dubious claims to the contrary after a bad round. This is because, at the heart of it, golf is a game that is so profoundly enjoyable in its challenge, and can accommodate players with a wide range of ability at social level. But is it really still much fun when you’re playing for your life? When each putt could be to cover the rent?

“I got to the point about four years ago when I realised I really wasn’t having fun anymore. I felt stuck, I felt like a victim, and I began to hate my job. But then I saw my kids swinging the club one day, heard them laughing, and I began to fall in love with the game again. I looked around and realised that my office was beautiful, and I knew this was still my calling in life,” Mazibuko said.

But having love and passion for your work is unfortunately insufficient on its own. And while players like Mazibuko have prodigious talent, they have chosen a career path so tough, and have had to endure more than their share of disappointment as a result. So what keeps them going? What inspires them to stay optimistic when they suffer setback after setback chasing something they may never get? Why not just get a job at the bank and earn a steady wage?

“It’s the best game in the world, and I get to do it for a living. Ever since I was four years old I dreamt of doing this. If I get to the age of 40, and have not yet broken through, I might perhaps look at doing something else. But for now, this is what I am putting all my focus into,” Mazibuko said.

Determination like this is to be admired in any walk of life, and anyone lucky enough to be in Mazibuko’s company for even a few minutes would wish him the very best in his golfing endeavours. His capabilities are not in question, and there is no reason why he can’t go on to make a massive success of himself. But the sad reality is that many that find themselves in a similar situation will not. There are simply too many contenders chasing the same prize, and the availability of sustained reward unfortunately cannot accommodate everyone. At some point, many will eventually have to be sensible and give up on their dream.

This should in no way discourage people from trying to make a career in golf. In fact, people who do should be admired. There are so many fine aspiring professionals in this country, including Mazibuko, and they are by no means fighting a hopeless cause. They are just fighting an incredibly difficult one, and should be under no illusions as to the trying times that lie ahead.

The South Africans who have made such a great living for themselves doing this are truly in the elite, and it is by no means the norm. Many outsiders complain about the ‘ridiculous’ sums of money earned by players on the various tours around the world in these recessionary times. But anyone who is aware of the extraordinary sacrifices required in this line of work knows full well that a golfer who cashes a huge cheque for winning a tournament has earned it – every single cent.

Irvin Mazibuko probably dreamed of that huge cheque as he dozed on the 18-hour bus journey home.

By Michael Todt

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