Nambian Golfers Tee Off on Sand Dunes

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WALVIS BAY, Namibia -- At this golf course, there's no way to stay out of the sand.
 
Aspirant young golfer Johnny Stiebel and his friends have fashioned an 18-hole course out of the golden red sand dunes that lie along Namibia's desert coastline, right outside their back doors.
 
The men are part of a development program at the Walvis Bay Golf Club, a misty port city where the desert meets the sea.
 
They work as caddies and get formal coaching as part of the club's mission to encourage the area's disadvantaged black youth to play sports.
 
When they get home they send sand flying with their practice swings on the dunes behind the township of Kuisebmond.
 
'It is harder to play on sand like this but it makes me a better player,' Stiebel said.
 
When the 21-year-old started caddying in 2002, he knew nothing about golf. Now he is the rising star of the program with a handicap of six.
 
'It is a way to stay out of trouble. Golf can take me somewhere. I would like to play professionally,' he said.
 
Nico Oberholzer, chairman of the Walvis Bay Golf Club, said the program, which has been going for four years with irregular sponsorship, has uncovered some excellent talent. Stanley Gawanab, 27, who is ranked fifth in Namibia, is one of their products.
 
'The raw talent is there. Their skills just need to be developed,' Oberholzer said.
 
But for Oberholzer the program is about much more than golf -- it is about giving the young men hope.
 
'It's not that we expect them to become professional golfers but they are winning competitions and they have a sense of achievement. That pride in themselves and the recognition they get is the main thing,' he said.
 
Oberholzer said the youngster's homemade 'greens' proved 'that where there is a will there is a way.'
 
The young players come from a poor community where there are few jobs or opportunities. The course they have mapped out is testament to their resourcefulness and love of the game.
 
They play with donated clubs and don't always have a full set. They play in sneakers or sandals with second hand gloves. Their carefully guarded balls are those they have found on the Walvis Bay course.
 
The holes are marked with rocks, they use a stick with an upturned plastic bottle as a flag and their scorecard is a piece of torn-off cardboard.
 
But for them it could be Augusta National Golf Club, home of the Masters, and they could be teeing off with Tiger Woods, Seve Ballesteros or Ernie Els.
 
'We named it Sun City,' said Manfred Geinub, referring to the famous South African course. 'It's all about dunes and the sun. It's challenging because you play under extreme circumstances.'
 
Geinub, whose 5-year-old son, Bobby, is already swinging a shortened club, explained that he and his friends decided to use the knowledge they had gained to design the course.
 
'We watch a lot of golf on TV and looked in some books,' he said.
 
Walking across the sand, clubs in hand, the players are quite a sight from the highway into Walvis Bay and have attracted the attention of passers-by. One was Joe Nawanga, a pioneering black Namibian pro golfer.
 
Samuel Kamitwata, 25, said one day Nawanga stopped his car and came to play a few rounds.
 
'He helped me with my grip. He shook our hands and said we must keep it up. It was great that this guy who is pro stopped to talk to us. I makes me happy,' he said.
 
A role model closer to home is Gawanab, quietly going about a round with other members on the silty soil of the Walvis Bay course beneath flying pelicans.
 
Gawanab, the youngest and only black person in the country's top five, wanted, like many other young African men, to be a soccer player. Instead, he found what he calls a gentleman's game.
 
'Golf has changed my life. It was my hope to play for my country,' he said.
 
Through the club he found a job in a woodworking factory, where the boss understands the demands of his sport.
 
'It would have been a different life for me. When I went on to the rank list, I stopped drinking and smoking,' he said.
 
Like Stiebel and his friends, Gawanab also started out practicing on the dunes.
 
'But we had nothing,' he said. 'For clubs we would weld water pipes together. These guys are lucky.'
 
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