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- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Foreshadowing, anyone? � While striding up the 9th fairway during his practice round a week ago 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-so moo-TEE-yuh), a serene, compactly built 23-year-old native of Zambia playing in his sixth professional event. With Woods on an adjacent fairway, Muthiya--possibly the only golfer in the 156-man field not playing with custom-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 Woods no-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 bleak township on the outskirts of Lusaka to the lush expanses of Winged Foot. Had their conversation continued off the course, Woods might have learned from Muthiya 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 birdie putts he had missed, but right in the thick of things. Then his driver deserted him. He spent the next 27 holes spraying tee shots all over Winged Foot's West course. "He was consistent," Rob (Bullet) Burns, his caddie for the Open, said after Muthiya's first-round 81. "Consistently left and right." � Muthiya would miss the cut by a dozen strokes after an 80 on Friday, yet he was the picture of class and composure. He told reporters after the first round that while he "wanted to be known as a golfer," he understood, and embraced, the significance of being the first black African to play 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 a guy who has seen things his golfing peers have not, a guy from a country where the per capita income is $430 and the life expectancy is 32.7 years. He knows that 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 and Madalitso, and a daughter named Ivwananji. The family lived outside Lusaka, Zambia's capital city, where Peter owned an insurance brokerage, which made the Muthiyas solidly middle class, although that, as Madalitso points out, "is very different from being middle class in America." Peter earned enough to afford a modest house in the township of Nyumbayanga, east of the capital. When he did splurge, it tended to be on something related to golf, most notably a membership at the Lusaka Golf Club.
Unbeknownst to their father, Wongani and Madalitso would chip balls around the yard. One afternoon 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 playing golf?'"
Madalitso did. The family had a VCR, and the boy spent countless hours studying video of three golfers in particular: Tom Watson, Ian Woosnam and Tony Jacklin. The result was a fluid, self-taught swing that drew admiring remarks last week. "His swing is very good," said Vijay Singh, following their Tuesday practice round. "I think he's had good coaching." Actually, Muthiya never had a real lesson until arriving on these shores in 2000. "He was always putting in the sitting room, rolling balls into a cup, trying to find the break in the rug," says Wongani, now a sales manager for Zambian Breweries. "It was incredibly irritating."
Irritating, but fruitful. At 13 Madalitso was Zambia's top amateur. He was invited to play in the World Junior Championships, at which he placed fifth. When the tournament was over, the juniors were invited to watch part of the British Open, which was being played at Royal Lytham & St. Annes. Looking on as the pros hit balls on the range, Muthiya was called over by Gary Player, who asked him to hit a ball. "Nice swing," Player said. "You're going to be the first black [African] player on the PGA Tour, aren't you?"
That sort of thing has a tendency to happen to Muthiya. Was it any wonder, then, that he seemed utterly at ease at Winged Foot, bumping fists with old friends like Ben Hayes and Camilo Villegas on the driving range, working the putting green like a Kennedy, chatting easily with the veterans. Everything about his demeanor said, This is where I belong.
The feeling also came from the many tournaments Muthiya won as a teenager in Zambia. At 16 he placed sixth in the Zambian Open, defeating many of Africa's pro golfers and attracting the attention of the nation's president, Frederick Chiluba, who invited him to the statehouse.
"He told me I had brought the country a lot of pride," says Muthiya, "and asked what he could do for me." The teenager laid out his plan: He wanted to play college golf in the U.S. and then play on the PGA Tour. Not long after the meeting, Madalitso and Peter were introduced to Jayme Roth, an American lawyer in Zambia doing government relations work. Roth, now an aide to U.S. Senator Evan Bayh (D., Ind.), met the Muthiyas and became determined to assist. He helped Madalitso prepare for the SAT and sent out videotapes to coaches all over America.
The handful who were interested wanted to see him play. So Muthiya entered a tournament called the Nolan Hanke/ Patty Berg Junior Masters in Fort Myers, Fla. "He gets off the plane, and his clubs looked like what you'd get at a garage sale," says Roth. "Who's around him? All the kids with the country club memberships and titanium drivers."
Muthiya went into the last day trailing by a stroke. As his group walked onto the par-3 14th at Cypress Lake Country Club, the heavens opened. Squinting in the deluge, Muthiya hit a four-iron to two feet. He took the lead and won going away. His father was there to witness the victory. Says Roth, "That may have been Peter's proudest moment."
Madalitso was offered, and accepted, a full ride to New Mexico, where in the fall of 2001 he arrived with a duffel bag of clothes and his clubs. Ryan Murphy, an alternate at last week's Open who was then the Lobos' assistant coach, recalls asking the new guy if he'd left a sweetheart behind in Africa. Smiling, Muthiya put his arm around his sticks. "These are my girlfriends," he said.