Vincent Tshabalala, 1942-2017
He learned to play in the veld in Soweto
French Open champion in 1976,Tshabalala, 75, was a lifelong friend of Gary Player, who expressed his shock at the suddenness of his passing.The two met as young boys in the 1950s at Virginia Park Golf Club (now Southdowns) in Kibler Park, south of Johannesburg.“We used to practice together, taking turns to hit balls and pick them up for each other,” said Player.
Young Vincent was a self-taught golfer, who learned hitting balls in the veld in Soweto, honing his unique swing. He apprenticed as a motor mechanic.
Later, Player helped sponsor Tshabalala in his professional golf career, enabling him to play tournaments in America and Australia during the 1970s when he was at the peak of his game. He played in two Open championships .“His surname was a tongue-twister for the Americans! Vincent was a brilliant driver of the ball (employing a distinctive cross-handed grip), one of the best I’ve seen, with a swing not dissimilar to Arnold Palmer, but he was average with the putter, and that’s why he never did as well as he should.”
He nevertheless stunned the golfing world when in his second start on the European Tour he won the French Open at Le Touquet with a 16-under-par total of 272.The course is on the English Channel, and Tshabalala revelled in the windy conditions with his low ball flight. A remarkable aspect of his victory was that he pulled his own bag on a golf trolley.
Following that win, the “white” PGA chose him in the two-man SA team for the World Cup in California at the end of 1976, a selection not met with universal approval among PGA members. But Tshabalala turned down the opportunity, saying it was “window dressing,” which the PGA members interpreted as an insult. However, this was the time of the Soweto riots, and Tshabalala, living in Soweto and a public figure, was uncomfortable being part of a team backed by an apartheid regime. It wasn’t long before South Africa was barred from the World Cup. In 1979, in Greece, Dale Hayes and Hugh Baiocchi were told they were not welcome, and sent home.
In 1982, nine black professional golfers, including Tshabalala, were awarded membership of the PGA for the first time. In 1990-91, when the National Sports Committee were merging sporting codes, golf was the first body to be approved, and he was elected captain of the PGA, helping unite the PGA and black Tournament Players Association.
Injury curtailed Tshabalala’s career on the Sunshine Tour in the 1980s, yet he emerged again in his 50s as a regular competitor on the European Senior Tour. He was a fixture alongside Player in his local celebrity charity events, firstly, the Nelson Mandela Invitational, which Tshabalala won in 2004 and 2005 at Arabella, with Ernie Els and Tim Clark as his respective betterball partners, and later the Gary Player Invitational until 2011, after which the betterball format came to an end, and the GPI became more celebrity driven.
Tshabalala, of Swazi heritage, loved playing golf, and passing on his immense knowledge to other golfers. He was inducted into the SA Golf Hall of Fame at the second ceremony in December 2010, and received a Presidential Sports Award from Thabo Mbeki. He was often to be seen at the Ohenimuri course near his home in Walkerville before it closed a few years ago. Vincent Tshabalala is held aloft after victory in the 2004 Nelson Mandela Invitational. Below: Displaying his distinctive cross-handed grip.