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A Long Way

June 26, 2006
June 26, 2006

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June 26, 2006

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A Long Way

He didn't make it to the weekend, but simply by playing his way from Zambia to Winged Foot, Madalitso Muthiya was a big winner at the U.S. Open

Foreshadowing,anyone? ¶ While striding up the 9th fairway during his practice round a weekago Monday, Tiger Woods heard a lusty round of applause--and it wasn't for him.¶ The uproar, in this case, was on account of Madalitso Muthiya (mad-uh-LEET-somoo-TEE-yuh), a serene, compactly built 23-year-old native of Zambia playing inhis sixth professional event. With Woods on an adjacent fairway,Muthiya--possibly the only golfer in the 156-man field not playing withcustom-fitted clubs--had holed a 155-yard eight-iron to eagle the 1st hole. ¶Woods and Muthiya were supposed to play together that afternoon, but Woodsno-showed. It wasn't a big deal: Such early-week sessions are highly informal.Still, Woods might have enjoyed hearing about Muthiya's journey from a bleaktownship on the outskirts of Lusaka to the lush expanses of Winged Foot. Hadtheir conversation continued off the course, Woods might have learned fromMuthiya a thing or two about playing through the pain of losing one's father. ¶Muthiya made the turn last Thursday at four over, smarting at the three birdieputts he had missed, but right in the thick of things. Then his driver desertedhim. He spent the next 27 holes spraying tee shots all over Winged Foot's Westcourse. "He was consistent," Rob (Bullet) Burns, his caddie for theOpen, said after Muthiya's first-round 81. "Consistently left andright." ¶ Muthiya would miss the cut by a dozen strokes after an 80 onFriday, yet he was the picture of class and composure. He told reporters afterthe first round that while he "wanted to be known as a golfer," heunderstood, and embraced, the significance of being the first black African toplay in the U.S. Open. Once inside his courtesy car, he deflated visibly."That was torture," he said with a sigh. And then he smiled. This is aguy who has seen things his golfing peers have not, a guy from a country wherethe per capita income is $430 and the life expectancy is 32.7 years. He knowsthat on the scale of hardship, a bad round of golf barely moves the needle. ¶In 1980 Peter Muthiya married Edith Siame, who bore him two sons, Wongani andMadalitso, and a daughter named Ivwananji. The family lived outside Lusaka,Zambia's capital city, where Peter owned an insurance brokerage, which made theMuthiyas solidly middle class, although that, as Madalitso points out, "isvery different from being middle class in America." Peter earned enough toafford a modest house in the township of Nyumbayanga, east of the capital. Whenhe did splurge, it tended to be on something related to golf, most notably amembership at the Lusaka Golf Club.

This is an article from the June 26, 2006 issue Original Layout

Unbeknownst totheir father, Wongani and Madalitso would chip balls around the yard. Oneafternoon Madalitso hit a shot through his parents' bedroom window. "When[my father] came back from work and found the window, he wasn't upset,"recalls Madalitso. "He smiled and asked us, 'You want to start playinggolf?'"

Madalitso did.The family had a VCR, and the boy spent countless hours studying video of threegolfers in particular: Tom Watson, Ian Woosnam and Tony Jacklin. The result wasa fluid, self-taught swing that drew admiring remarks last week. "His swingis very good," said Vijay Singh, following their Tuesday practice round."I think he's had good coaching." Actually, Muthiya never had a reallesson until arriving on these shores in 2000. "He was always putting inthe sitting room, rolling balls into a cup, trying to find the break in therug," says Wongani, now a sales manager for Zambian Breweries. "It wasincredibly irritating."

Irritating, butfruitful. At 13 Madalitso was Zambia's top amateur. He was invited to play inthe World Junior Championships, at which he placed fifth. When the tournamentwas over, the juniors were invited to watch part of the British Open, which wasbeing played at Royal Lytham & St. Annes. Looking on as the pros hit ballson the range, Muthiya was called over by Gary Player, who asked him to hit aball. "Nice swing," Player said. "You're going to be the firstblack [African] player on the PGA Tour, aren't you?"

That sort ofthing has a tendency to happen to Muthiya. Was it any wonder, then, that heseemed utterly at ease at Winged Foot, bumping fists with old friends like BenHayes and Camilo Villegas on the driving range, working the putting green likea Kennedy, chatting easily with the veterans. Everything about his demeanorsaid, This is where I belong.

The feeling alsocame from the many tournaments Muthiya won as a teenager in Zambia. At 16 heplaced sixth in the Zambian Open, defeating many of Africa's pro golfers andattracting the attention of the nation's president, Frederick Chiluba, whoinvited him to the statehouse.

"He told me Ihad brought the country a lot of pride," says Muthiya, "and asked whathe could do for me." The teenager laid out his plan: He wanted to playcollege golf in the U.S. and then play on the PGA Tour. Not long after themeeting, Madalitso and Peter were introduced to Jayme Roth, an American lawyerin Zambia doing government relations work. Roth, now an aide to U.S. SenatorEvan Bayh (D., Ind.), met the Muthiyas and became determined to assist. Hehelped Madalitso prepare for the SAT and sent out videotapes to coaches allover America.

The handful whowere interested wanted to see him play. So Muthiya entered a tournament calledthe Nolan Hanke/Patty Berg Junior Masters in Fort Myers, Fla. "He gets offthe plane, and his clubs looked like what you'd get at a garage sale," saysRoth. "Who's around him? All the kids with the country club memberships andtitanium drivers."

Muthiya went intothe last day trailing by a stroke. As his group walked onto the par-3 14th atCypress Lake Country Club, the heavens opened. Squinting in the deluge, Muthiyahit a four-iron to two feet. He took the lead and won going away. His fatherwas there to witness the victory. Says Roth, "That may have been Peter'sproudest moment."

Madalitso wasoffered, and accepted, a full ride to New Mexico, where in the fall of 2001 hearrived with a duffel bag of clothes and his clubs. Ryan Murphy, an alternateat last week's Open who was then the Lobos' assistant coach, recalls asking thenew guy if he'd left a sweetheart behind in Africa. Smiling, Muthiya put hisarm around his sticks. "These are my girlfriends," he said.

"He was a lotfurther along than a lot of freshmen," says Lobos coach Glen Millican.While his first year in Albuquerque was one of adjustment, he made some noiseon the course. He shot a 66 in his second tournament, tying for second, andfinished 10th at that season's Mountain West Conference championships.

Just beforeChristmas of his sophomore year, Madalitso had a three-way phone conversationwith Peter and Wongani, who was attending the University of Notre Dame inAustralia. Peter was in the hospital with pneumonia. "He was kind ofstruggling with his breathing," Madalitso says. "He said, 'They askedme to spend the night here, but I'll be back to work on Monday.'" Threedays later he was dead at 52.

Both Muthiya boyswere far from home, adjusting to new lives. If there ever was a time they wouldabandon their ambitions, this was it. Neither quit. Wongani, now 25, took twojobs to continue his education. (He earned degrees in marketing and electroniccommerce.) Blessed with strong support from his team, and from the Roths--Jaymeand his parents, Claude and Janet, had all but adopted him--Madalitso returnedto school.

The resiliencecame from their dad. Says Wongani, "He used to tell us that the world was ajungle full of lions and snakes, and that to survive we had to get oureducation."

The loss of hisfather sent Madalitso's game south. "I was fragile emotionally," hesays. Still, he pulled off top 10 finishes at the National Invitational and theconference championships. The summer after his junior season he made it to theround of 32 in the U.S. Public Links and the U.S. Amateur--the latter played ata more benign Winged Foot than the one he saw last week.

After graduatingin the fall of 2005 with a degree in economics, Muthiya turned pro. AtFebruary's qualifying school for the Canadian tour he birdied four of the lastsix holes to earn his card. (He has made $892 in two starts so far.) Back homehe came in second at the Zambian Open. He Monday-qualified for the Nationwidetour's Gila River Classic and made the cut. Once Muthiya set his sights on theU.S. Open, the fits and starts that had plagued his game since Peter's deathcame to an abrupt end. He laid waste to the field at his local qualifier,shooting a 63 at Albuquerque's Twin Warriors course.

The competitionwas more formidable at his sectional qualifier, held at the Double Eagle GolfClub in Galena, Ohio. The field of 37 included Bill Haas, son of Tour pro Jay,and Matt Weibring, son of Champions tour pro D.A. Muthiya shot a 65 in themorning and a 69 in the afternoon. No one came within four strokes of him.

Wongani got thegood news in a text message at 3 a.m. Lusaka time. "I started jumping upand down," he says. Not knowing what else to do, he took a shower and wentto work ... at 4 a.m. "The security guards thought I was crazy, but I wassimply overjoyed," he says. "It felt as if all the struggles we'd gonethrough were worth it." In a hotel room outside Columbus, Madalitso wastelling his sometime caddie, Carleton Hasbrook, "This is my time."

It was histime--to see how much more work he has to do. Armed with a new set of Clevelandirons, acquired by the help of fellow Lobo Tommy Armour III, Muthiya took tothe course. But the clubs weren't enough.

Seven time zonesaway, studying the scroll at the bottom of the ESPN broadcast, Wongani agonizedas the number next to his brother's name kept growing.

Madalitso wasphilosophical. "Obviously, the last two days I didn't drive straight,"he said. "One of the things I have to learn how to do is to salvage around, even when I'm hitting the ball badly."

He was moreinclined to talk about the upside. He'd been encouraged by his practice roundwith Singh, of which he said, "I felt like, a lot of times, I had almostthe same shots he did. Of course I need to keep improving, to keep growingmentally, but this experience showed me I'm not that far away. It showed me Ican compete with the best players in the world."

With that,Muthiya disappeared through the doors of Winged Foot's handsome stoneclubhouse, the first leg of a remarkable journey complete.

Peter was in the hospital with pneumonia. "He waskind of struggling with his breathing," Madalitso says. "He said, 'I'llbe back at work on Monday.'" Three days later HE WAS DEAD AT 52.
"I felt like, a lot of times, I had almost thesame shots as [Singh] did," said Muthiya. "This experience showed meI'M NOT THAT FAR AWAY. I can compete with the best players in theworld."
TWO PHOTOSPhotograph by Fred Vuich;JIRO OSE/REDUX PICTURESEYES ON THE PRIZE As Muthiya became the first black African to play in the U.S. Open, his family (inset) watched from home. THREE PHOTOSJIRO OSE/REDUX PICTURES (3) ROOTS Peter's sister Avelisi gazes from their childhood home; bottom, Edith holds a photo of Madalitso and her late husband. THREE PHOTOSJIRO OSE/REDUX PICTURES (3)SCRUFF START Tutored by pro Kevin Phiri at Lusaka Golf Club, Willie Chiwasha aims to emulate four-time champ Muthiya.