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Last Updated: Monday, 14 April, 2003, 09:57 GMT 10:57 UK
Golf bug grips SA
By Mohammed Allie
BBC Focus On Africa magazine

Thabo Mbeki
Mbeki is at home on the range
With their football and cricket teams having gone out in the opening round of their respective World Cups, South Africans are turning to a new sport - golf.

The game has become extremely popular in the country in recent months, with even President Thabo Mbeki - more usually associated more with chess and books - catching the golf bug.

"The president is practising regularly and is taking the game seriously," said presidential spokesman Bheki Khumalo.

"He's making unbelievable progress."

Golf for business

Mr Mbeki has thus far had eight intensive lessons from his coaches Mervyn Solomon and Craig Martin, who are part of the Golf for All development programme.

"The president has a very good short game around the greens. One can see he has a great deal of talent," explained Mr Solomon.

"I understand that he sometimes gets up at 0500 to practice his golf at his presidential home."

Mr Mbeki took up the game on the advice of Reserve Bank governor Tito Mboweni, who argued that if the president spent time with the predominantly white captains of industry on the golf course, he might be able to assuage their fears about the future of the economy.

According to Julian Shaw, a coach at one of the local golfing academies, many businessmen are taking up golf in order to secure business deals.

"A lot of people have begun to understand that golf and business go hand in hand," Mr Shaw said.

"If they play a decent game, they're going to stand a better chance of either clinching a deal or getting promoted.

"I have around four clients coming to me every week who say: 'I'm the boss. I need to play golf because I'm losing business', or they tell me: 'My boss has sent me to learn to play because we're losing deals on the golf course'."

Massive interest

Mr Mbeki is also one of a number of black people in South Africa now taking up the game.

Ernie Els
SA's Ernie Els is one of golf's top two
According to Mr Shaw interest in the sport has rocketed over the past two years.

"They now have access to the facilities and the prices are a lot lower at driving ranges," he said.

"The entry level equipment is relatively cheap and the quality is a lot better too.

"We haven't even seen the start of the growth. I think if we can tune into the juniors and ladies, we'll see an enormous growth."

Prominent MP Patricia de Lille - herself a keen golfer - believes the increase is due to curiosity and also the arrival of role models like Tiger Woods (a black American) and Ernie Els (a white South African), who are the world's two best players.

"The game was never accessible to us as blacks so there's an inquisitiveness about it," Miss De Lille said.

"We're quite behind - I'm sure we could have produced more quality players if we had the opportunity to play at an earlier stage."

A full version of this article appears in the new edition of the Focus on Africa magazine.

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