ROUGHLY five years since its launch, the Steyn City’s Jack Nicklaus designed golf course – ranked in the top 100 courses in SA – has already made tremendous strides in the local golf circles. Not only has it won the hearts of well known players from two of South Africa’s most loved national teams, Bafana Bafana and the Springboks. The golfing world has been paying special attention to one Simthandile Tshabalala, aka SimTiger, all because at seven years old, he isn’t sorely the youngest member of the Steyn City golf club. He’s conjointly one among the foremost gifted, as affirmed by several major international trophies he has accumulated in the nine months he has taken up golf professionally.
Just over a week ago, Simthandile left South Africa to participate in the Australian Open Golf Championships, in which he came fourth, solidifying his world ranking of number 14 in the boys under-seven category. It’s no wonder that overseas golf experts have been fast to draw close parallels between the grade two pupil and world golf icon, Tiger Woods, landing him the nickname ‘SimTiger’.
SA’s young Tiger Woods, playing it like a pro
Commenting on his overall performance in Sydney, the ‘young Tiger Woods’ had this to say: “It was very, very tough, but I feel proud for what I was able to achieve and finish fourth inspite of my circumstances. Our flights from South Africa to Sydney took more than 30 hours altogether. I was tired and because we arrived there later than expected, I didn’t get a chance to do practice rounds, which other kids I was playing against luckily managed to do.”
Likewise, his father, Bonginkosi Keith Tshabalala couldn’t be more proud of his son’s resulting performance, given his earlier struggles to get a Visa issued on time. “Each time he would sit down or get inside the car (upon arrival in Sydney), he’s just sleep because of fatigue. But as soon as he got onto the field, he insisted on playing, and that’s something I’m most proud of as a father – his tenacity.”
Speaking of tenacity, Tshabalala senior (below left next to his son, Simthandile) remembers all too well his son’s introduction to the game of golf, and attributes his subsequent success to exactly that, his ‘amazing tenacity’. “I spend and invest a lot of my time with him,” he says, adding: “Despite golf being an expensive sport and the fact that he was struggling a bit in the beginning, I never gave up on him. And since I grew up with an absent father, I said to myself ‘I am going to be there for my child no matter what’. When he was three, we tried him in different sporting codes. First we took him for lessons in tennis and got him a professional coach – I remember he was the same size as the racket when he started playing,” he says with a proud grin on his face.
“We also tried cricket, soccer and it was only when he was four that he started messing around with my golf club. Even though I never thought that he would play golf, I was surprised by the level of interest he seemed to be showing in the sport right away. So I bought him his own set, and took him to one of the junior golf clinics where he’d mess about with other kids. We spent a lot of time doing that, until I could see that he was starting to understand how the game actually works. Even when we got home after practice, he would want to switch on the TV and look for golf.”
However, Simthandile only started playing competitively last year in August during the Africa Open game. He was six at the time. “He played with a lot of kids from the rest of the African continent and others from Europe. On the first two days, he seemed to be struggling a bit because it was his first time competing. But on the third day, that’s when I saw his real talent and passion. On that day he achieved the same score as the experienced kids that were there. From then on, we started investing more time in the game, and I’m now with him in the driving range every single day.”
A busy international schedule ahead
While Tshabalala senior insists that school comes first, and that as parents they will do anything to not let the sport hurt his schoolwork, he knows he’ll soon have to come to grips with reality, and try to work around his ever growing golf schedule. At this moment, his schedule already looks jam-packed with over five golf world championships confirmed for this year alone. These includes the European Tour in Scotland in May, the Pepsi Little People’s Golf Championships in the US in June and Costa Rica Junior Open in July. He’s also qualified to play in the US World Championships in July. After that he’s playing the Africa Open in August, followed by Canada Junior Open in September – this is in addition to several scheduled local tours. “I’m hoping he won’t give up on the sport. If he can continue with this attitude, he can go far. I’m there to just give him the support, and then it’s up to him to decide what he wants. But I think he really loves the game and he has the right mindset to help him cope better under stressful situations.”
That said, the one thing he wouldn’t want is for him to get big-headed. “I just want him to keep on trying to improve himself, and continue to practice very hard. When he plays, I always tell him ‘remember you are not here to compete with anyone but yourself. Even when you hit the bad shots, it’s ok too – just make sure the next shot is a good one’. Afterall, that’s what made Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy the world’s greatest golfers they are today. They always recover from a bad situation.” He adds: “So that’s how we are working on his mental aspect. But he has so far done well, and doesn’t get upset anymore. He’s mature and understands how it works.”
Setting a good example
Interestingly though, as his couch Tumo Motaung explains, the youngster has remained calm and focused through all the excitement. Describing him as “incredibly hardworking and dedicated”, Motaung is convinced that Simthandile already possesses an innate ability that can catapult him to even greater heights. If he’s ready to hone his mental strength, he adds, he can become nearly unbeatable, much like his icon, Tiger Woods – whose recent 2019 Masters win is hailed the greatest sports comeback in history.
“We believe he’s a wonderful example of what people can achieve once they set their mind to something” Giuseppe Plumari
On a more encouraging note, Simthandile himself seems unaffected by his sudden fame. Instead, he remains humbled by the sheer love and support of his family, schoolmates and that of his doting father, who also acts as his caddie. Moreover, he has the full support of the Steyn City team behind him, as Giuseppe Plumari (CEO of Steyn City Properties) explains: “One of our goals was to form a development platform where youngsters feel drawn to spending time outside, rather than indoors watching television.” Seeing Simthandile on the golf course doing what he does is a proof that they’ve accomplished what they’re set out to do, he says adding; “We also love following his story because we believe he’s a wonderful example of what people can achieve once they set their mind to something.”