2005: Out of Africa

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Pebble Beach, Calif.

If we have to believe in something bigger than ourselves, let it be God and golf.

At times, the difference between the two seems indistinguishable. I don’t know if it was shepherds or God who invented this game, but clearly there was something miraculous going on here at the Wal-Mart First Tee Open.

Ask 18-year-old Jacques Gatera of Africa how he ended up at Pebble Beach Golf Links, playing with Hale Irwin in the final pairing on the final day of this Champions Tour event, and he will suggest it was providence. Something happened to him that was far, far beyond our ability as humans to understand.

On an extraordinarily beautiful Sunday here at the chapel of golf, the sun jumped up and down on the water, the chattering of seabirds pierced the air and Gatera toured the Monterey Peninsula with a three-time U.S. Open champion.

What a contrast to the life Gatera left behind in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The sounds of his African homeland – and the brutal civil war between the Tutsi and Hutu peoples – were the screams of men, women and children. Men were thrown alive onto bonfires of burning tires, women were systematically raped, children were butchered.

The bloodbath was beyond civilized comprehension. In one 100-day period in Rwanda, roughly 1 million Tutsis and Hutus were slaughtered.

Gatera, a Tutsi, spent 11⁄2 years in a concentration camp in the Congo. Imprisoned with his father, mother and two brothers, he was fed twice per week. All around him, people died of starvation.

Guards told him he soon would be taken to a destination called “the killing place,” and indeed many of his fellow Tutsis were herded onto buses and never seen again.

He survived. His entire family made it out alive, thanks to negotiations by the United Nations and Red Cross. They were flown to Phoenix and deposited at a Motel 6.

Everything was about to change for Gatera, who was 13 at the time. God and golf would join forces in a remarkable combination of events.

In Phoenix, avid golfers Jan and Tim Kloenne follow an annual Christmas routine that transcends golf. They adopt an impoverished family for the holidays, providing food, gifts and encouragement.

Five years ago, they embarked on their holiday ritual by asking the Rev. John Dougherty of St. Gregory’s Catholic Church if he knew of a family in need. Yes, he surely did.

The Kloennes met Gatera, his parents and brothers. Soon after this introduction, Tim said to Jan, “I don’t think we need to look next year. We’ve found our family.”

This alliance would become more than friendship – a kinship, if you will. Here at Pebble Beach, Jan Kloenne walked in the gallery with Therese Mbuya, who is Gatera’s mother. It was the first time she had seen her son play golf.

“This is a miracle,” said Mbuya, who speaks six languages and taught kindergarten in Africa, yet works as the head of housekeeping at a Phoenix hotel.

A golf miracle, all right. Tim Kloenne, a member of the Thunderbirds civic organization in Phoenix, is the group’s liaison with the First Tee of Phoenix. The Thunderbirds have conducted the Phoenix Open on the PGA Tour since 1939 and have been instrumental in the growth of junior golf in the Phoenix area.

Kloenne decided to introduce Gatera and his brothers to golf. This was four years ago.

“We would play 10 rounds in a day,” Gatera said of the nine-hole, par-3 First Tee course near South Mountain in Phoenix. His handicap is now 6.

Gatera, who speaks three languages and is about to start his freshman year at Glendale (Ariz.) Community College, wants to become a golf course architect. His older brother, Serge, 20, also is a student at Glendale and wants to become a physician and return to the Congo. His younger brother, Patrick, 16, says he wants to study computer technology at Duke University.

“The First Tee program is all about life skills,” said Kloenne, a manufacturer’s representative for a company that makes quality control systems and equipment.

Gatera received a huge amount of help from Irwin, his professional partner for all three days of the Wal-Mart event. Gatera’s golf game was powerful but erratic, and he constantly fought a hook. Irwin, who never hits a hook, gave his young partner plenty of soft-spoken fatherly advice.

“Mostly,” Gatera said, “I’ve been copying his swing, how smooth it is.”

Irwin tried to deflect attention from the golf competition.

“I don’t care how he plays,” he said. “I’m proud of Jacques for what he’s done.”

Perhaps it is ironic that Wal-Mart elected to sponsor this Champions Tour event in Pebble Beach, because the company has been stymied in its California expansion and has only one store in Monterey County – 25 miles away from Pebble Beach, in Salinas.

However, if Wal-Mart believes in the virtues of the First Tee, that’s good enough for me. The First Tee of Monterey County also is located in Salinas, with a diverse population that ranges from wealthy landowners to dirt-poor agricultural workers.

“We take it for granted that everyone has three meals a day, but it isn’t true for all these First Tee kids,” said Laird Small, director of the Pebble Beach Golf Academy. “The First Tee feeds them, provides a study hall for their schoolwork and gives them a real chance to succeed at life.”

All these heroes, from Jan and Tim Kloenne to the First Tee of Phoenix to Wal-Mart to the host Pebble Beach Co., came together to make it possible for Jacques Gatera to end up at Pebble Beach Golf Links in the company of a legendary golfer.

Sometimes this is called synchronicity, although I choose to call it divine intervention.

Maybe golf was invented by shepherds. Maybe it was created by something bigger. I don’t know, but the promise of the First Tee is that additional youngsters will discover golf and, in so doing, will discover a better life.

It can happen. Ask Jacques Gatera.

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