2006: A World Apart - Madalitso Muthiya

By Rex Hoggard

Madalitso Muthiya’s white courtesy sport utility vehicle eased a path through a throng of spectators filing off the grounds at Winged Foot Golf Club late last Wednesday, and the young African with the quick, broad smile slumped into the passenger seat and inched up the volume on the radio. Although just days before the 106th U.S. Open he’d passed his maiden driving test in America, he was happy to leave the weaving to someone else.

The sound of Bob Marley’s “Kaya” album filled the air of the Ford Explorer, which prompted a member of Muthiya’s growing entourage to ask what kind of music he normally listened to.

“Hard-core rap,” Muthiya said without opening his eyes.

A long, awkward moment passed before Muthiya broke into a wide grin and a deep-chested laugh: “Naw man, that’s not what I like.”

Welcome to the world of Muthiya (pronounced Ma-TEE-ah).

The 23-year-old from Lusaka, Zambia, is soft-spoken and unassuming with a rapid-fire wit. What’s often cloaked by Muthiya’s cheerful wrapper, however, is a refreshingly insightful man with a relaxed sense of purpose and a quiet self-confidence.

Opens have a tendency of producing unlikely icons. The toughest test in golf often brings out a hero from the otherwise hapless pack. Last year, Jason Gore rose from the depths of mediocrity to charm the Pinehurst masses.

But at Winged Foot, a leafy bastion of American privilege and wealth, perhaps the most improbable fan favorite of all was hoisted onto the collective shoulders of a vocal gallery.

To simply point out that Muthiya, playing just his seventh event as a pro, was the first black from Africa to compete in the American national championship is to miss the subtleties of his inspiring story. Born to middle-class parents in a country with a 2005 per capita GDP ($900) slightly less than most players paid for their hotel rooms last week, Muthiya ascended to his lofty perch among the 155 competitors at the 2006 U.S. Open through a combination of guile and good luck.

The first stroke of good fortune came when Muthiya was 9 years old and injuries forced him to stop playing soccer. In search of an athletic outlet, Muthiya started sneaking his father’s clubs into the back yard. His first shot for his father, Peter, plowed through the family’s kitchen window.

“The way Peter described that first shot was, ‘My mouth was open but my mind was running,’” says Jayme Roth, a government trade representative who met the Muthiyas in 1998 and became Madalitso’s American sponsor.

Just four years after his shattering start in the game, Muthiya won an amateur event at Kabwe Golf Club. During, a harsher time in Zambia, Kabwe was known as Broken Hill Golf Club. It was here that Peter Muthiya developed a passion for the game, stealing golf balls hit out of bounds and fashioning holes on nearby lots for he and his friends to play. It also was where Peter Muthiya got one of his first bitter tastes of segregated Africa.

Before gaining its independence from the United Kingdom in 1964, Zambia was deeply segregated and blacks were not allowed to play Kabwe. His son’s victory at Kabwe was a metaphorical triumph over a lifetime of abuse.

“Not long ago you couldn’t play on that course, and now a few years down the line your son comes along and breaks the record on the course he wasn’t allowed to play,” says Muthiya’s older brother, Wongani. “It was very emotional.”

In 1998, with the help from Roth – a Washington lobbyist hired by the Zambian government – Muthiya was offered a scholarship to attend the University of New Mexico.

Muthiya’s relaxed personality and a natural curiosity helped ease his transition into America, but rarely do cultures collide without the occasional hiccup. On numerous occasions during Muthiya’s freshman year at New Mexico, Roth fielded confused phone calls.

“He called me one day just panicked. He said there was all sorts of strangely colored food in the cafeteria,” says Roth. “I had to explain to him it was Halloween.”

Even on the golf course, the one place where borders and divergent cultures should not be in play, there were a few curious moments.

Like during one of his first practice rounds with the team, when Muthiya stood in the fairway for a prolonged period of time gazing at the flag. When asked by a teammate why he was waiting to hit his shot, Muthiya said he was trying to gage the distance to the pin. The teammate had to explain that the plate next to his ball with the number on it could help. “He’d never played a course with yardage markers before,” Roth says.

The most trying moment in Muthiya’s life came in 2002, when he received a midnight call from Wongani, who was attending college in Australia. Peter Muthiya, at age 52, had died from pneumonia.

“He kept me grounded and never wanted me to get a big head,” Madalitso Muthiya says. “He taught me how to be strong.”

In much the same way Tiger Woods’ persona was molded after Earl’s, Muthiya is the byproduct of a focused father with a strong will.

Peter Muthiya was an insurance salesman, barely able to afford his son’s green fees at Lusaka Golf Club. From often violent civil rights marches in the 1960s to a surreal episode during a round of golf when a playing partner was bitten by a cobra and died almost instantly, Peter Muthiya had seen and been hardened by the worst Africa had to offer. Last week at Winged Foot that same strength was on display in the form of Madalitso Muthiya.

Muthiya’s game is best described as no-nonsense. Although not Rory Sabbatini fast, his pace is on the mindful side of deliberate, with rarely more than a single practice swing. Combined with his perma-fixed smile, Muthiya’s shtick proved to be popular with the New York galleries accustomed to the normally robotic Open competitors.

“That was awesome,” Muthiya gushed after his second round. “They were yelling so much. Funny stuff, like ‘You da man, Maddie. Come on Africa.’ I was laughing the whole time.”

His swing is simple and entirely self-fashioned. His first coach came on board just a few weeks before the Open – which he qualified for by easily claiming medalist honors at a sectional in Ohio. His action is courtesy of VHS.

As a junior, he wore out a video tape of the 1994 British Open. He would replay the preferred parts of Nick Faldo’s and Ian Woosnam’s action and mimic them until it was grooved to perfection.

“He owns his swing. It’s his,” says Mike Dunphy, a player development representative for Cleveland Golf who met Muthiya when he was at New Mexico. “Name me a 23-year-old that is a world class player that hasn’t had a ton of instruction. He created his own art through pictures, which means he doesn’t have to depend on someone else to fix something.”

At Winged Foot, Muthiya played solidly enough early in Round 1. He was 2 over through his first seven holes before an “Open” bogey at No. 8 started an over-par slide. His tee shot found the 4-inch primary cut rough, not that dream-eating secondary stuff where golf balls go to die. He hacked out short, chipped to 4 feet, and missed the par putt. Just the way “Tillie” drew it up.

Six times zones and a hemisphere away, that same bogey played out in much different fashion on a small, black-and-white television in the clubhouse at Lusaka Golf Club.

Lusaka is the crown jewel of Zambia golf, with 18,000 kwacha green fees (about $6) and an annual European Challenge Tour event.

Last week, it was a makeshift gathering point for a proud nation eager to cheer for their first Open participant.

“The country was really excited. Not only golfers but the masses because it was the first of its kind,” said Wongani Muthiya, speaking by phone after watching some of his brother’s first round at Lusaka Golf Club. “I was getting a lot of calls from people. People I didn’t even know, telling me how important it was for Madalitso to play in the Open.”

Most players looked out from each of the West Course’s 18 tees and saw acres of 3- to 8-inch rough. Muthiya saw opportunity. Despite rounds of 81-80, he embraced his Open experience as something to be savored and enjoyed.

Muthiya has an outlook rooted in unwavering self-confidence. He has been hardened by the realities of a world that most of the other players in the Open could never comprehend.

“We’re not talking about a kid that was sheltered from the horrors of Africa,” Roth says. “He has lived it.”

Three of Muthiya’s cousins have died from AIDS. The average Zambian male has a life expectancy of 37 years and 86 percent of the country lives below the poverty line.

Economic challenges are not some foreign concept that Muthiya, even after five years in America, has put behind him.

Although he arrived at Winged Foot fresh from his first pro victory on the TightLies Tour and a $7,000 winner’s check, a fellow player had to pick up a portion of Muthiya’s caddie fee for the week. When told he should consider purchasing an electronic green reader for $50, there was no shame or hyperbole in his voice when he replied: “I’m broke. Maybe I can sell my body for $50.”

Late Friday, slumped in the same passenger seat, Muthiya took a moment to gaze at Winged Foot’s English scholastic-style clubhouse one last time. His Open journey was over, for now. But suddenly the road from Lusaka to the PGA Tour doesn’t seem as long.

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