ZIMBABWEAN sport has had its fair share of young prodigies but none is yet to capture the nation’s imagination the way the late golfer Lewis Chitengwa continues to do 15 years after his untimely death.
yesteryear profile with DANIEL NHAKANISO
Chitengwa, whose legacy continues to inspire the next generation of Zimbabwean golfers, is fondly remembered for his famous three-shot victory over future world number one golfer Tiger Woods to win at the 1992 Orange Bowl World Junior Championships in Miami, Florida.
The following year Chitengwa — a three time winner of the Zimbabwe Amateur Championship — became the first black player to win the South African Amateur Championship, beating former Masters champion Rory Sabbatini enroute to the title.
His victory in South Africa was often referred to as the “African golfing equivalent of Jackie Robinson, breaking baseball’s colour barrier” in the US and he was an instant hero to all who had suffered under apartheid rule and all who opposed the racist system.
All this good play earned the young Zimbabwean a scholarship to attend the University of Virginia; where he excelled in US college golf before graduating in 1998, majoring in African American studies.
However, his overriding passion was golf and his dream was to become number one in the world.
Chitengwa also had a flair for dramatic shot-making and a penchant for smashing enormous tee shots which earned him victory in the 1996 NCAA Long Drive Contest, yet again edging out Woods into second spot.
After turning professional, Chitengwa in 1999 became the first black African to qualify for the Buy.Com Tour. He also made it into several events on the PGA Tour.
Moving forward to 2001, he found himself on the Canadian Tour and was playing well, with a number of top 10 finishes in a row.
But that year, aged only 26, Chitengwa died in tragic circumstances.
Showing flu-like symptoms after the second round of the Canadian Tour’s Edmonton Open —where he was tied for fourth position — Chitengwa slipped into a coma and died from a rare and deadly form of meningitis.
But a decade and as half after his passing on, Chitengwa, who made such a huge impact, among those who knew him in Zimbabwe, the United States, Canada and all over the world, continues to inspire the next generation of young players.
Last week some of the country’s finest junior golfers converged at Wingate Golf Club to play for the Lewis Chitengwa Memorial Trophy, an annual competition held every school holiday in honour of the late great golfer.
Alan Rae, an investment specialist from Vancouver, Canada published a 168-page coffee table book titled: A Gentleman’s Game —– the Life & Legacy of Lewis Chitengwa.
A total of 41 people, including Woods, South Africa’s nine-time Major champion Gary Player, Nick Price, the greatest golfer to emerge out of Zimbabwe who, at his peak even became the world number one and world renowned golf instructor David Leadbetter used that book to pay their tributes to Chitengwa.
Rae, who also runs the Ernie Els Foundation in Canada, first met Chitengwa in 1992 when he was part of the Zimbabwe team which was taking part in the World Amateur Team Championship (also known as the Eisenhower Trophy) in Vancouver.
The Canadian national was like a father figure to Chitengwa, who had learned the game from his father Lewis Muridzo at the Wingate Country Club, where he was the general manager then and is the club pro now.
Chitengwa took his mother’s maiden name because his father, Muridzo, was a professional at his home club, Winggate.
“Nick Price asked me to host the Eisenhower Team that came to Vancouver to play and Lewis was 16 as I recall,” Rae told Standardsport last week. He was doing homework while we enjoyed a cold beer after his terrific finish. He came 14th behind Michael Campbell (2005 US Open Winner) and the likes of Justin Leonard and so on. He immediately ingratiated and was difficult to ignore.”
“His full ride to the University of Virginia was deserved and he became the only person I know who beat Tiger Woods to earn that coveted 4-year full ride. His inspiration is best evidenced in my sons who are both scratch players as he instilled in them the virtues of integrity, honesty and hard work,” he said.
Rae together with close family members of the Muridzo family were in attendance in June last year when Chitengwa was recognised posthumously for his immense contribution to golf by being inducted into Mercedes-Benz Southern African Golf Hall of Fame last year, 14 years after his death.
Chitengwa was inducted into the class of 2014 with South African golf luminaries Fulton Allem, John Fourie, AE Vernon, Ronnie Glennie and the South Africa Golf Association’s Walter Conyers Kirby.
Previous inductees include Player, Bobby Locke, Ernie Els, Price and Sally Little. Player presided over last year’s ceremony, where he paid tribute to Chitengwa, who he said was on his way to greatness and would have been as good as 14-time major champion Woods.
Brendan Barratt, editor of Africa’s leading golf publication Compleat Golfer described Chitengwa’s induction as the most humbling moment of the Southern Africa Golf Hall of Fame Induction dinner held in Cape Town.
Sadly as veteran local sports writer John Kelley said in his 120-year book on The History of Golf in Rhodesia and Zimbabwe: Staying the Course, “…We will, therefore, never know whether arguably the greatest talent to emerge among the black Africans in this country at the time would have achieved his stated ambition to become world number one.”