Back in June 1976, I was a terminally optimistic, zit-ridden, 17-year-old five-handicapper. Naturally, I turned pro.
I thought, after a few months’ practice, I would stroll through qualifying school and straight onto the European Tour. After a few months’ practice and with the European Tour school behind me, I was a suicidal, 18-year-old assistant professional with nowhere to play. On the bright side, my skin had cleared up.
Spending a winter in Northern Ireland and working on your game is a good way to get your handicap from five to about 11, so it was obvious I needed to get out of there.
In those days, there was really only one place a talentless teenager without any qualifications could play, and that was the Safari Tour — a series of tournaments in what was then Rhodesia, Zambia, Kenya, Botswana, and Nigeria. I had been to Dublin once.
My dad and a couple of his pals scraped together enough money for my airfare. I wrote my name on my secondhand, white Naugahyde golf bag, my mom sewed my name into the waistbands of my underwear, and I was off to the dark continent.
I took a puddle jumper to London, followed by a DC-10 that bounced in three different countries, and finally boarded a crop-sprayer to Victoria Falls, Rhodesia. It seemed like it took about two days, mainly because it did. I stumbled onto the molten asphalt, blinking like a newborn rat. The first thing I noticed about Africa was that the sun was out.
The Elephant Hills Classic was my first African golf experience and the beginning of a continental love affair that has lasted more than 20 years. There is something about Africa: perhaps a primeval heartbeat or the intoxicating smell of the red dirt after the rains that lures the white man back again and again. Also, the beer is very cold.
Believe me, I was a very white man. In terms of sunbathing, the closest thing I had ever experienced was lying on the seaweed-strewn beach of Ballyholme Bay in Northern Ireland, where no one ever ventured into the water over knee depth. If you did, a wee icy wave might come along and lick the underside of your swimming trunks, which would induce an involuntary yodeling fit that would make a fat Austrian man in tight leather shorts jealous. But I digress.
Exhausted from the journey, I decided after checking into the Victoria Falls Hotel to take a short nap in the shade underneath a beautiful Jacaranda tree in the gardens. The hypnotic sound of the Zambezi, thundering over the edge of the escarpment less than 500 yards away, and the warm sun soon lulled me to sleep.
When I awoke, I was no longer in the shade, and my back and legs were no longer white. I decided to nip back to the room for a quick shower. In the bathroom’s full-length mirror, I discovered I was decidedly two-tone. I pressed my finger into the middle of my back, and it left a curious white spot for a few seconds. Hmmm, I thought, that’s a new experience.
However, it didn’t hurt so I decided to take that shower. Now that hurt. The Vic Falls Hotel had a kind of faded Colonial elegance and jaded Colonial plumbing. But even one drop at a time, the touch of the water was agony.
A couple of hours later my upper back and shoulders and the backs of my legs were covered in water blisters the size of Top-Flites, and it was with a feeling of impending humiliation that I stumbled into the hotel lobby to ask for advice.
Nathan, the bellhop, did me the service of lifting my shirt. “Mister David,” he said, “I have a friend in the village who will help you.” At this stage I couldn’t have cared less if he had an enemy in the village who would kill me, just as long as he did it painlessly.
Much to Nathan’s amusement and the driver’s confusion, I spent 10 minutes on my knees facing backwards in the front seat of a cab. We pulled up in the middle of a cluster of mud huts with thatched roofs and Nathan told me to wait in the car, as he jumped out of the back seat, yelling something in Matabele to the driver, who turned slowly to face me and shook his head slowly, with a boy-are-you-in-for-a-surprise smile.
Some moments later Nathan reappeared, smiling like a basket of French fries, and motioning me to enter the nearest hut. Walking like a crippled wildebeest, I followed him inside. This was not your average doctor’s waiting room. A small hurricane lamp provided the only light and a small shriveled black man with enormous white nocturnal eyes was apparently my only hope.
Leaving the hotel, I was expecting to visit a man wearing a white coat and stethoscope. This man was wearing nothing but a pair of disintegrating denim shorts, what appeared to be a 5,000-year-old Mets ballcap, and a maniacal grin. “Show him your back,” said Nathan.
“You show him,” I reminded him, motioning pathetically behind me and trying to hide my growing panic. Nathan gently lifted up my shirt. The little man, who by now even I had figured out was a doctor of the witch variety, collapsed into some kind of hysterical trance, with his lips drawn back over his teeth, and shook uncontrollably.
After about 30 seconds of this, he jabbered something at Nathan, and then went into another convulsion. “What the hell is wrong with him?” I asked.
“Nothing,” said Nathan. “He just said he never met a man so clever on one side and stupid on the other!”
The old man held one finger up in front of me, in the international sign for, “Wait here, dummy,” and scurried out the door like a demented warthog. Some moments later he returned, holding a wooden bowl full of a dubious looking green paste, and what appeared to be a porcupine quill. My heart rate shot up to about 940 bps.
He proceeded to prick every blister on my body, and then smear me all over with the green paste. Strangely enough, none of this hurt, and after paying him $5, I was back in the cab facing backwards looking at Nathan, who was doing his best to convince me that tomorrow I would be fine. By this stage of the evening, I was deadly suspicious that our next stop would be a large cooking pot, suspended over an open fire, as I felt I had just been marinated and tenderized.
The next morning, I awoke face down in the bed. Gingerly I slid over to the edge, and managed to get myself upright enough to go into the bathroom, where I looked at myself in the mirror. It looked like I had been smothered in guacamole, which had hardened overnight.
I reached over my shoulder and tried to pick a small piece off. About a square foot of the stuff fell to the tiled floor, and shattered. To my amazement, underneath lay perfectly smooth, if a little pink, skin, which was vaguely tender to the touch. I carefully removed the rest of the stuff, took a cool shower, got dressed, and was able to play the pro-am! I promise you, they couldn’t have done this at the Mayo Clinic.
The golf course was another shock to the system. Almost 8,000 yards long, the Elephant Hills Country Club was carved through the thick bush that bordered the Zambezi River. Elephant grass rough, so called not because elephants eat it, but because you can’t see an elephant behind it, lined every fairway.
No one, but no one, ever went to look for a golf ball, and for safety’s sake everywhere other than the fairway was deemed a water hazard. In the pond to the right of the eighth green lived a crocodile named Charlie who eventually had to be removed, because any human on the eighth green was rapidly becoming an endangered species.
The resident beasties were scary enough, but at this particular stage in African history, the Zambians and the Rhodesians weren’t exactly getting along. And, the white government of Ian Smith was about to lose power to Robert Mugabe, who had promised everyone everything, just so long as they voted for him.
Every now and then anti-government troops, safe on the other side of the river, would send a few rounds in our direction. The day after we left for the Rhodesian Dunlop in Salisbury, they let fly at a tourist plane with a heat-seeker, which missed but got the next hottest thing, that being the kitchen in the clubhouse. Anyone who ordered the Rhinoburger that day got it well done.