2 August 2021 – When Thami Ngobeni hit his first golf ball on a football field on Riverside Farm back nearly 10 years ago, he didn’t have visions of Augusta or even nearby Leopard Creek.

The Mpumalanga junior was just beginning his journey with the South African Golf Development Board (SAGDB) and he had no real idea what the world of golf had to offer.

“All I thought about was hitting that ball, but today, I can dream about teeing it up in the Alfred Dunhill Championship in a few years,” said Ngobeni. “I can imagine driving down the famous Magnolia Lane at Augusta. These goals may be far in the future, but I inch closer to those goals with every drive.”

Just before the nationwide lockdown in March, Ngobeni celebrated his first-ever visit to the winner’s circle when he won the Middelburg Junior Open.

The boost of confidence the victory delivered encouraged the young Mpumalanga talent during all the months away from the golf course.

“Thami kept up his practice drills at home and, as soon as golf re-opened in June, he was back out there and working harder than ever,” said SAGDB Mpumalanga Development Manager Edwin Compton. “And it paid off.”

In his first competitive start post lockdown, Ngobeni won the Mbombela Junior Open by one shot from Middelburg’s Zane Nel a winning score of three-over-par 74.

Having started with a double bogey at the par four opening hole, Ngobeni racked up a trio of birdies from the third and overturned a bogey at the sixth with a birdie to turn one-under.

“I made three straight pars to start the back nine, but then I dropped a shot on the 13th and made eight on the par five 14th. The putts were not dropping, but I stayed patient and I closed with four straight pars to win,” Ngobeni said.

“My coach always tells us to stay in the moment and I did that. I stayed calm and I focussed on the next shot. You can’t change what already happened, but you can control what you do next. It was a great feeling sinking the winning putt. Winning has really motivated me and I just want to keep on working hard and improving my game.”

Launched by the vision of businessman Johann Rupert to use golf as a powerful vehicle for change, the SAGDB aims to build the nations’ golf skills, to grow the sport and to eventually produce champion golfers from all walks of life in disadvantaged communities.

More than 35 000 players have come through the grass-roots programme in the last 21 years.

“More than 300 members have earned provincial colours on merit and five members have represented South Africa abroad, including Cole Stevens, who competed in the 2018 Youth Olympics in Argentina and Zethu Myeki, who represented the country seven times on the international stage,” Compton said.

“Development takes time, energy and patience, but we have also seen more than 20 members in the last 10 years join the pro ranks, including Zethu, Franklin Manchest and Siyanda Mwandla in the last two years.

“Thanks to the funding raised by the annual Gaynor Rupert’s Ladies Invitational, we now have a world-class practice facility in the National Junior Development Centre, where we can coach the children in the programme.”

The facility was constructed on a 30-hectare tract of land purchased from Riverside Farm and the original farmhouse was converted into a dormitory to house.

“Through Mrs Rupert’s golf day funding, we have built synthetic chipping and putting greens, which has helped the children improve their short game tremendously.

“We are starting to witness the fruits of our labour in players like Thami. In the last year, he has risen to third in the Mpumalanga Golf Union’s Junior Rankings. He represented province in the SAGDB Motus Team Challenge at Royal Johannesburg & Kensington. And if he can keep on improving, he will be representing Mpumalanga on merit in the next South African Under-19 Inter-Provincial.

“He is such a gritty and determined young man and I have no doubt that he will work hard to achieve that goal and his achievements really motivates the younger learners.

“Our program has changed their lives. We don’t only see them improve as golfers, but as human beings as well. The discipline of golf improves their school work and other areas of their life.

“Ultimately we want to produce golfers that will compete on the pro circuit, and there is no doubt in my mind that we have a crop of rising talent here in Mpumalanga that could go really far in the game.”

For Ngobeni, the future is clear.

“I still have a lot of work ahead, but I know that I want to make a living on the golf course. It will take a lot of hard work and commitment, but I am up for the challenge. I am so grateful for the day that the SAGDB stuck a club in my hand. It changed my life forever.”