It’s not often than an academic publisher takes up publishing golf books. Wits University Press (South Africa) published an important book in 2005, written by Christopher Nicholson, telling the story of an amazing golfer who played during the Apartheid era. Papwa Sewgolum: From Pariah to Legend represents the type of below-the-radar golf books we like to seek out.
Sewsunker Sewgolum, whose nickname was Papwa, sounds like a remarkable man. In 1963, Sewsunker, a 5-foot-4-inch, 150 pound caddie and self-taught golfer of Indian descent became the first non-white to compete in a white only tournament in South Africa, the Natal Open, played at the Durban Country Club. He had the temerity to actually win the tournament, beating a field of 113 white golfers. During the awards ceremony, Sewsunker was presented the trophy in the pouring rain while the white club membership was snug inside the clubhouse watching in dry splendor. The white runners-up were awarded their prizes in the clubhouse. Sewsunker played and won under great adversity. He took his meals during the tournament with the black caddies and had to change his clothes in a car. The South African Broadcasting Corporation, which was government owned at the time, cancelled coverage of the tournament once Papwa entered and did not report the results on its news program. All this occurred at the height of the apartheid period in South African history. When the picture showing Sewsunker receiving the trophy in the rain (image below) was shown around the world it caused an outrage and put pressure on the South African government to change its apartheid policies.
The Durban Country Club’s 1982 club history includes a comical explanation of why he was slighted – The laws of the day were such that Indian people were not allowed inside the clubhouse. An infraction of those laws could have resulted in the club losing its liquor license and being closed down. They also state that if they had moved the ceremony inside Sewsunker’s fans wouldn’t have been able to see him receive the trophy. To quote, “It certainly was not a slight to Papwa – rather one of consideration to enable his fans to see him in his moment of victory.” I don’t know, does that sound like consideration to you?In 1965, in the same tournament, Sewsunker played again and won, beating Gary Player, who won the US Open in that same year. Unfortunately his success was short lived – the following year he was banned from all local tournaments and the apartheid government withdrew his passport, preventing him from playing internationally. He could not even enter courses as a spectator. Prior to banning him, Sewsunker played in the South African PGA tournament while two Government agents followed him around the course to make sure that segregation laws were enforced. Under the laws at the time, non-whites could play only among themselves before spectators who were also non-white. The crowds at the tournament were segregated. During this period, security police regularly followed him around and harassed and threatened him frequently. He had to apply for permits to play in white tournaments and sometimes they were granted but often times they were not.
In another highly offense remark in the club history they say, “Sadly, brilliant golfer that he was, Papwa seemed to lack the determination and discipline to remain at the top.” What an absolutely disgraceful statement. Ban the poor guy from playing and then say he lacked the will to play?
Prior to the ban, Sewsunker competed internationally with great success. While he was not caddying, Sewgolum worked in an Oil of Olay factory putting the tops onto filled bottles. He was befriended by the founder and owner of Oil of Olay who took him to Europe to play. Prior to his going on the first trip in 1959, however, they had to teach him how to write his name so that he could sign his scorecards, since he was illiterate. They also had to teach him how to use a knife and fork since previously he had only eaten with his hands. Before he was banned, Sewgolum won the Dutch Open championship in 1959, 1960 & 1963. He played in the British Open Championship a handful of times including at Muirfield in 1959 and Royal Lytham in 1963, where he made the cut. He shot 71 in the first round, the same as Jack Nicklaus. Through 36 holes he was tied with Gary Player and two strokes ahead of Arnold Palmer.
What makes Sewsunker’s story even more amazing is that he played the game with a back-handed grip, hands positioned the opposite way to the traditional grip. The unorthodox grip is now known as the Sewsunker grip – named after Sewgolum because he used it with such success. Imagine for a minute a back-handed grip or kack-handed grip as it is also sometimes called. How is it even possible? The game is hard enough, could you imagine holding the club wrong, with your left hand beneath your right?