As we wait at the Johannesburg Country Club on a warm Friday afternoon to meet Thabo Maseko, the youngest qualified PGA golfer, it is hard to know what to expect. Could he be Africa’s Tiger Woods in 10 years, or just another very good weekend golfer?
The Johannesburg Country Club, an oasis of trees and grass amid concrete, is to the north of the city and alive with activity. Some people are hitting balls on the lush green fairways, while others take a late lunch. From behind us a young, polite man arrives and greets us.
There are no other black golfers in sight. In fact, before 19-year-old Maseko was born, most black golfers weren’t allowed to compete on South Africa’s golf courses, let alone play professionally in tournaments including the Sunshine Tour, a prestigious tournament that Maseko has just qualified to play in this year. In those days, most black people on golf courses were caddies—a million miles away from an aspiring black golf professional like Maseko.
“It’s a dream come true—something I’ve wanted to do pretty much my whole life. It did come a bit early, but I was definitely ready for the change. I’m just relishing the challenge, to be honest. It’s an amazing feeling and I’m looking forward to it,” he says with a big smile on his face.
Maseko, who is ranked 835th in the European golf ranking, is humble and just happy to be doing what he does best—play golf.
“It’s exciting because I’m just playing. I’ve got nothing to lose and I’m young. You know other guys are playing for their lives; it’s like a real job for them. I’m just having fun out there and I’m doing what I love. Instead of going to varsity, I’m playing golf—it’s just awesome,” Maseko says.
Maseko, son of former CEO of the South African Government Communication and Information System (GCIS), Themba Maseko, says he started to like golf after watching his dad play socially. Maseko says he then started hitting balls around when he was about 10 years old, but it wasn’t until he saw Tiger Woods on television that he wanted to be a professional golfer; he started playing, aged 12.
It’s not easy to make it as a professional golfer, and one has to go to tour school to qualify as a professional. Maseko attended The Golf School of Excellence in Observatory, Johannesburg, and had to finish in the top 10 out of his group to qualify as a tour professional.
“That week is an intense one—you play four rounds, you know you can’t mess up; every shot is really important. It really was a difficult week, but I’m glad I came out,” Maseko says.
Mike Taylor of the Sunshine Tour says Maseko is exceptionally good for his age and is a promising talent. “He’s got his head squarely on his shoulders and looks pretty sharp when he’s on the green. He broke 70 on his first day of tour school trials. He played confidently and has really good skills,” says Taylor.
“At the end of the day, I’m working towards a goal; so in the next couple of years, hopefully I can be number one. I guess we’re all practising hard out there—it’s long hours—we just want to be the best we can, really,” Maseko says enthusiastically.
Opportunities are endless to make money in the game and can turn a golfer into a multi-millionaire.
“Put it this way—playing for $460,000 a week in prize money, if you finish in the top 30, you can make around $13,000-$20,000 a week straight,” says Maseko.
Life can be tough without sponsors because golf is an expensive sport.
“We’re also speaking to a few new potential sponsors right now; we’re going to be signing in the next couple of weeks—I can’t say right now who I’m speaking to, but it’s pretty big. They’ll be giving me tons of money a month to go play, and I’m going to Europe as well; they want to support me, especially because there hasn’t been a young black golfer on tour. So people are giving me opportunities and it’s looking good.”
So what does the young golfer hope to achieve in the near future? “I’ve only been professional now for about four weeks, so hopefully as soon as I find my feet, I’ll make a few cuts and make a bit of money. But right now, I’m not thinking about the money. I just want to go and show my talent and pick up the trophies,” Maseko says, smiling confidently.
Tiger Woods must be looking over his shoulder.