Ex-caddie from South Africa brings power to Bethpage

Richard Meek/SI

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. (AP) — James Kamte waited in the clubhouse at Bethpage State Park to escape the morning rain that delayed U.S. Open practice by 30 minutes and threatened to ruin plans for what already had been the trip of a lifetime.

A former caddie from South Africa, this was his first time to America.

He already had played golf with Jack Nicklaus, who made it possible for the 26-year-old Kamte to get invited to the Memorial. He played a practice round with Ernie Els, whose foundation made it possible for Kamte to pursue a career in golf.

And he had an offer from Tiger Woods to practice at Bethpage Black if Kamte qualified for the U.S. Open.

He shot 68-65 and made it easily.

"He didn't think Tiger would be there because of the rain," Simon Masilo, his caddie, recalled about Monday's round. "I told him, 'Tiger is like a plane, man. You not there, he leaves."'

Within minutes, they were on the first tee. Kamte decided only to walk the first hole until his nerves settled.

Woods had already seen him in action.

Two weeks earlier at Muirfield Village, Woods was pulling on his glove for a post-round practice session when he looked down the range. Kamte stood out because there are few blacks on the PGA Tour, and Woods couldn't take his eyes off him for other reasons.

"Have you checked out that kid from South Africa?" Woods said, nodding in Kamte's direction. "Watch this swing."

Kamte, 5-foot-6 with a barrel chest and pleasant smile, took the club back slowly, flexed his knees on the downswing and launched another tee shot into orbit. Woods had heard he was longer than anyone on any tour, and nothing he saw made him doubt it.

By then, the stories already were circulating. On the par-5 11th hole, where most big hitters could go for the green with a 3-wood, Kamte was hitting a 6-iron. Woods smashed big drives on the 15th hole up the hill; Kamte hit it through the fairway.

Chris Stroud, who played that week with Kamte, offered his own confirmation as he walked by on the range.

"Which car were you aiming at?" Stroud said, a reference to light traffic on Memorial Drive, some 500 yards beyond the range.

The rest of the game needs some work. Kamte shot 77-78 and missed the cut in his PGA Tour debut. This is his first major, and odds are it will be equally overwhelming.

Considering how far he has come, Kamte is still soaking it all in.

He grew up in Johannesburg, where opportunities were scarce for his parents and six siblings because of apartheid. He caddied for $1 a day, which seemed like a small fortune at the time. And he watched the people who paid him, trying to figure out this game of golf.

Kamte was a quick study.

"I just watched how guys played," he said. "I started playing around, and I got looked after. And here I am."

He left out a few critical legs of the journey, such as the time a member thought he was good enough to enter the club championship at St. Francis Bay Golf Club.

"The man I usually caddie for said to me, 'I'm going off at noon. Will you be carrying for me?' And I said, 'I cannot this week, I'm sorry. I'm going off at 12:30,"' Kamte said.

Imagine his surprise when Kamte won the club championship by 18 shots.

He earned a scholarship to finish high school, polished his skills for four years at the Ernie Els Foundation, and then got the break of a lifetime when Gary Player insisted on introducing Nicklaus, his longtime friend, to this promising young golfer.

"Gary said, 'Jack, the kid can play. He just needs an opportunity,"' Nicklaus said. "I love these types of stories."

The exemption wasn't offered purely out of hope. Kamte won the Dimension Data Pro-Am on the Sunshine Tour early last year, became the first black South African to earn a European Tour card in 30 years and won in February at the Asian Tour International.

Barring another PGA Tour exemption, he is headed back overseas to Asia or Europe.

But at least he gets a crack at the Black. And his practice round with Woods can only help, even if they played only nine holes.

"It was awesome, just watching how he approaches the game," Kamte said. "He doesn't miss a thing. He understands the game. And that's where I need to get."

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