Once upon a time a 15-year-old South African golfer of modest means and generous talent traveled to San Diego to play in a tournament. While there, he stayed with a nice American couple who had no children of their own. The couple liked the young man so much they wanted to adopt him. The teenager had a family back in South Africa, but he liked the couple and he wanted to play golf in America. So he asked his parents to let him live in the U.S. Like all good parents, they wanted the best for their son, so they consented.
Now this young man is a 22-year-old with two sets of parents and a promising future as a professional golfer.
This is no fairy tale. It's the real-life story of Manny Zerman, who has been smiled on by fate and four loving adults. The happily-ever-after part, though, is up to him. "I've been very fortunate," Zerman says. "My mom and dad sacrificed for me and then let me experience life for myself. Then when I got here, these people who weren't my parents guided me in the right direction. The only way to pay them back is to succeed and make them proud."
Things would have been different if Zerman had returned to his home in South Africa to finish high school. First, he would have faced a mandatory year of military service, and then, in all probability, he would have had to apprentice on the South African pro circuit. By staying in the U.S., though, to finish high school and attend college, he was able to compete in more amateur events at a higher competitive level, thus enhancing his Chances of becoming a great golfer like countryman Gary Player.
Having just completed his junior year at the University of Arizona, where he's the No. 1 player on the golf team, Zerman is a good bet to be in the spotlight at the NCAA championships, June 3-6 in Albuquerque. After taking a year—and five tries—to raise his SAT scores to NCAA standards, he joined the Wildcat golf team in 1989 and finished third in the 1990 NCAA tournament, which was won by his former high school teammate and good friend Phil Mickelson of Arizona State. Last year Zerman finished fourth. As a team Arizona has been less consistent, placing third and 18th the last two years, while the Mickelson-led Arizona State team won the 1990 championship.
"I badly want that national championship," says Zerman, who has had trouble getting his way on the golf course with Mickelson around. Their relationship dates back to 1987, when they met while playing in the Optimist Junior World championship. They used to play practice rounds together as members of the University of San Diego High School team. But they were such intense collegiate rivals that the two have drifted apart. Mickelson, who just graduated, already has a PGA Tour victory (the 1991 Northern Telecom Open in Tucson) to his credit; he won the NCAA title as a freshman in 1989, and again in 1990, as well as the 1990 U.S. Amateur. Last year he was the low amateur at the Masters.
"People perceive me as being in Phil's shadow," says Zerman, who was second to Mickelson on their high school squad and was runner-up to him at the '90 U.S. Amateur. "But I don't see it that way. I want to be looked at for what I've done, not in comparison to him."
What Zerman has done is come in second at the past two Amateurs and finish as the low amateur at this year's Masters. He's also on schedule to receive a degree in communications from Arizona next year, when his eligibility expires.
Yes, fate has been kind, but Zerman's formula for success has been equal parts pluck and luck. He comes by the pluck naturally. His father, Armando, is a cabinetmaker who left Italy 38 years ago in search of better job opportunities. Armando, now 57, rose through the ranks to become a supervisor in a pulp factory in Umkomaas, a tiny industrial town on the South African coast about 30 miles from Durban. But his hopes for prosperity foundered along with South Africa's economy, which still struggles under international economic sanctions imposed in response to the country's apartheid policies. Even as his own dreams were fading, Armando urged his three children—Raymond, now 30 and a golf pro in Europe; Consuelo, now 25, and a legal secretary; and Manuel—to be industrious. "Whatever you do, always give it 100 percent," he would preach. "There's no substitute for hard work."
Manny was six when he took his first swings with his older brother's clubs at a nearby course one day. Armando soon bought him a junior set of clubs, and at age nine he started private lessons. Armando put in overtime to finance the weekly sessions at a course 60 miles away. His wife, Miranda, who is 54 now, shared his great expectations for their youngest child. She would leave the car in the garage and walk the three miles to and from the market to conserve gas, this after spending half of the day working as a seamstress and the other half working in a delicatessen.