‘Papwa’ Sewgolum Should Have Been Part of It All
The name of Sewsunker ‘Papwa’ Sewgolum, to my knowledge, has never crossed my mind, and it should have. I am such a fool for great stories that come out of the shadows from history. They remind me that golf is not something apart from life, something to do while we wait for the next shoe to drop. The drama of living and the various characters with their strengths and weaknesses are all in there as life lessons.
‘Papwa’ was South African, and of part Indian heritage. His people were brought in large numbers back in the 40s and 50s to work the sugar fields. From a western golfer’s perspective, South Africa may be a difficult cultural saga to understand, as we are so inclined to view the world through the lens of our own. Sewgolum was a touch of the Satchel Page, Jesse Owen and Charlie Sifford stories all wrapped up into one. He grew up as a caddie, but was never allowed to approach the first tee in the national championship of his own country. A Michael Bamberger article on Sewgolum in Golf.com will tell you the way it unfolded, and if you appreciate the magic of previously unknown history, you will enjoy the discovery. I was only passingly aware of South African racial and cultural struggles until the Mandela story got our attention over here. All I knew was that the Dutch were the major white overseers in the African country from early colonial times. In that light, all-inclusive segregation demanded that golf tournaments were to be a one-race affair.
The major influence on me at the time was my father, who routinely went ballistic over people being shut out of anything for peripheral and irrelevant reasons. Only not playing well enough could disqualify anyone in his mind, and every citizen had the right to try making the cut. It was at the same time in childhood I began to follow Gary Player’s career, the face of South African golf. I obviously didn’t know what he was really about at the time. Player is so sure of himself in so many subjects that one can become a little annoyed at being removed from the conversation as he cuts to the chase. However, if one wants to cure cowardice, he’s the man to hang out with.
It was Player who convinced Prime Minister Vorster to let Lee Elder play in the national tournament, allowing ‘Papwa’ Sewgolum to join in as well. He had come across wizard with the reverse grip and great short game while trying to chase him down in a final Sunday. Sewgolum was well on his way to becoming a South African legend, as Player would be.
The twists and turns of prevailing conditions did enable ‘Papwa’ to appear in the Dutch Open. Sewgolum made the most of his opportunity by winning it three times in ’59, ’60. and ’64. He was only allowed one British Open in his career, in which he finished among the top group. Sewgolum remained a national legend, but never made it into the outer world where the door was shut nearly everywhere. Only nine years older than Arnold Palmer, he died far too early in 1978, destitute, a heavy drinker with a heart condition. Considering his time in history, he could and should have participated in the greatest days of the ‘Big Three.’
My father’s personal allergy to ‘peripheral elimination’ has stuck with me. I cannot fathom entire lives that would have shown greatness in their fields thrown aside. From Marian Anderson and the Metropolitan Opera, Satchel Page being barred from facing the great white hitters every week, to Lee Elder and the fight to make the transition from caddie to player, it’s all based on utter stupidityandignorance.
At least I’m grateful to have learned the story of Sewsunker ‘Papwa’ Sewgolum, even if it took so many decades to hear it. Membership of nations and golf tours must never be partial or conditional again. If one is a member, it’s got to be a full membership. The only reason for being denied entrance to the first tee should be the one they used for me – no game.