A call to action for women's golf in South Africa

Sally Little of South Africa during the ISPS Handa Cup at Reunion Resort. Little had 15 LPGA wins in her career.

Sally Little of South Africa during the ISPS Handa Cup at Reunion Resort. Little had 15 LPGA wins in her career.

REUNION, Fla. – Here’s a head-scratching factoid: Sally Little is the only South African to win on the LPGA. She won her 15th and final LPGA title 24 years ago.

Given the recent major success of South African men such as Ernie Els, Charl Schwartzel and Louis Oosthuizen, it’s difficult to believe that no South African competes on the LPGA.

Little, who played last weekend at Reunion Resort in the ISPS Handa Cup, a Legends Tour event that pits the U.S. against the rest of the world, has made it her life’s mission to improve women's golf in her native land. She recently went before South African Parliament to lay forth her 10-year plan.

"My goal is to get some black young women to carry the flag for our country,” said Little, 61, who lived in the U.S. for 28 years before recently moving back home.

A two-time major winner, Little learned the game from her father, Percy, a terrific sportsman in his own right who was acquainted with Gary Player, the legendary South African champion. When Sally was a young girl, Player took an interest in her game, and she found inspiration in his worldwide success. Little easily can trace the accomplishments of young South African males back to Bobby Locke, who inspired Player, who motivated Els and so forth.

"Kids get inspired by heroes,” said Little, noting that there are none to fill that role in South Africa.

It took Little one year to set up the Sally Little Charitable Trust, which is based in Cape Town. Little plans to drum up corporate sponsorships to create job opportunities for young black women to teach the game in rural areas. It’s a grass-roots campaign that received the government’s approval five weeks ago. The way to uplift women in the game, Little said, is through teaching. The program’s first big push will be in Soweto, a black urban area near Johannesburg that got its name from an acronym for “South Western Townships.”

Little’s vision is for black women of better-than-average skills, not necessarily tour-caliber, to take their passion for golf and pass it along to future generations. Empowered black women in business, she said, already are taking up the game.

“It’s all going to be set up for her to earn a living, be inspired and teach her own,” Little said.

South Africa only recently adopted golf as a “code sport,” due to golf's return to the Olympics, beginning in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games. The South African Women’s Open returned after a two-year absence in 2012 and was co-sanctioned by the Ladies European Tour. The event was televised and, according to Little, made a good splash on the national sporting scene.

Little isn’t shy about making it known to TV executives that more women’s events should be shown on national TV. Even the U.S. Women’s Open wasn’t televised in South Africa last summer.

“For people and sponsors to really get behind golf, they need to see it,” she said.

The disconnect between the men’s and women’s game in South Africa is surprising and disappointing. When South Africa won the 2006 Women’s World Amateur Team title on its home turf in Cape Town, the future seemed bright. Ashleigh Simon, the young phenom who signed with Nike, was primed to follow Little. In 2010, Lee-Anne Pace won five times on the LET en route to the money title.

Both players offer glimpses of what could be, but nothing that can erase the near quarter-century victory drought on the LPGA. Even worse, South Africa’s complete lack of representation.

“The men are light years ahead of us,” Little said.

At least now there’s a plan in motion.

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