If you head to Glendower Golf Club in Johannesburg, it is quite likely that you will find a young lady on the driving range or chipping green – head down, eyes locked in the moment, effortlessly striking purity upon purity from her clubs. This would be Nobuhle Dlamini in her office, as she hones her prodigious golf game for the next test.
Every golfer will tell you there is a giant step between the amateur game and the paid ranks of professional golf. The innocence and charm of the amateur ranks is lost as soon as you venture into the dog-eat-dog world of the pros.
It’s simply different when you’re playing for money, as every stroke has financial implications. It is a reality some of the biggest names the game has ever seen have had to confront, as youthful excellence stutters in the cut-throat environment of top-level golf.
For the 27-year-old golfer from eSwatini who calls South Africa home, the transition also took some time. As an amateur, Dlamini had become Tiger Woodsesque, demoralising the rest of the pack with her power and prowess on the greens.
In 2009, she won the SA Amateur tournament by 10 strokes to cement her dominance at the time. She was the first black winner of the title in its then 103-year history. In 2013, Dlamini won the SA Amateur by 12 strokes and rose to No. 2 in the world amateur rankings.
She was ready.
Delivering on the promise of youth
By the time she turned pro in 2014, the expectation was that she would soon make a name for herself and reach the heights her amateur prowess had hinted at. But it took Dlamini four frustrating years to deliver on the huge promise of her youth.
“It’s different when you play for money,” veteran journalist Lali Stander reiterates. “You know, Nobby [as Dlamini is known on tour] was amazing as an amateur. But it always takes a while for players to take that into the professional ranks.”
When Dlamini tapped in to secure the 2019 Joburg Ladies Open, and with it the Investec Property Fund Order of Merit, she confirmed her dominance in this season’s Sunshine Ladies Tour.
Having finally broken her professional duck at the Wild Coast Sun SuperSport Ladies Challenge in 2018, she has now found her stride.
“The win at the Wild Coast was massive for her. She had got close a number of times, but she just needed that first win to show herself that she can.”
That self-belief was illustrated most emphatically in George, when she won the Dimension Data Ladies Challenge in February.
Her winning putt on the devilishly fast Outeniqua layout was a 25-footer of authority, as she drank in the joy of becoming a multiple winner on Tour.
“From the moment she hit it, you could see she knew it was going in,” Stander remembers. “That’s the Nobby we knew in the amateur days. She’s got that confidence going now and it’s very exciting to see where she will take it.”
Dlamini admits to relaxing more. She says that has allowed her to better enjoy her game. Relaxing ought not to be confused with a lack of intensity though, because she remains as tenacious as ever.
Following in her father’s footsteps
She acknowledged that there were a few boxes that needed ticking for her to graduate from participant to winner. After all, she has been ticking those boxes since she was 12.
“My dad taught me to play. He himself was self-taught, starting as a caddie, and then eventually turning pro,” she says proudly.
As a youngster, Dlamini used to follow her father, Johannes, around the Royal Swazi course at which he caddied. The golf bug bit her while picking up stray balls on the course and her father started to coach her formally at the age of 12.
“He started a golf academy at the Royal Swazi and I became one of his students.”
Individual sports are littered with tales of father-offspring relationships and Dlamini says her father had a massive influence on her development.
“He was hard but fair on me, and he pushed me to be better and better.”
He instilled his ethic, along with his drive and passion, in his daughter. The terrific pity is that Joe Dlamini didn’t live long enough to see his little girl rise and rise to where she is now.
He died in 2015 after a short illness, but lives on through his daughter and her exploits. Two wins this season, as well as the Order of Merit crown, are exactly the preparation she needed to scale even bigger mountains in the next few months.
Now she will fly the eSwatini flag on a new stage.
“I want to take the form I have here to Europe and try to win titles over there, too,” Dlamini says with intent.
Her family, she says, have grown used to her nomadic existence. The life of a professional golfer is often lived out of a suitcase, so her family is always thrilled when she is back.
“They understand. They realised a long time ago that this was my dream, and they support me unconditionally.”
Going home is always something to look forward to and she is now making a habit of returning bearing better and better news.
“They are always happy when I’m home, even though I’m hardly ever there. But I know that they are proud of me,” she says.
European Tour card
Dlamini secured her European Tour playing rights with a lot less drama than most in December, as the notorious Qualifying School arrived at a time when she was feeling very confident.
“It was quite some work getting to Q School, but I was playing well at the time and I won the first stage,” she reflects. “I took that confidence into the final stage and I’m really happy to be there.”
It is a hurdle that every golfer has to overcome, a rite of passage that squeezes all the pressure of several years of practice and build-up into one precious week. It is something similar to that first driving test for teenagers trying to become adults.
But it is much, much more demanding. Amateur superstars routinely fall apart as the magnitude of the occasion dawns on them. It’s a once-a-year window, and is as much a test of skill as it is of mental fortitude.
A summer of significant gain
Dlamini’s wave of confidence propelled her through and her next challenge is to take a summer of significant gain into mainland Europe. She knows there are small things she has had to work on, but it’s all coming together.
“I’ve worked a lot on my putting. It was the one area of my game that I wanted to really improve, and it is coming together.”
Her long game is a massive strength and she can reduce some shorter courses to nothing when her driver is on song. Tour life in Europe will open her up to a range of conditions as well as an explosion of cultural experiences.
Her extensive amateur career, which saw her traverse Africa, will certainly stand her in good stead. Her ultimate ambition is to make it into the LPGA Tour, but she is not in a rush. Her journey thus far has taught her that patience is everything.
“I want to take the same attitude that I have here to Europe. I would like to lower my stroke average and keep my Tour card, obviously.”
Getaway to Europe
The golfing world is open to her now and how she fares in the next few months will be a matter of personal drive and consistency.
Fittingly, the sojourn into Europe starts at the top of Africa, in Morocco, at the end of April. That gateway to mainland Europe will be her first significant assault as a fully fledged European Tour member – outside of co-sanctioned events in South Africa – and she will want to hit the ground running.
It has been a long grind already, but Dlamini is only 27. She is well aware that, for all the fun and considerable success of her amateur days in the sun, the best may be yet to come.
It’s very different when you’re playing for money. It also happens to be a lot more rewarding.
When Dlamini won in Soweto in March, she clinched a R170 000 payday thanks to the winner’s cheque as well as the R100 000 Order of Merit bonus. It’s not about the money, of course. But it is.
The numbers only get bigger in Europe and so, too, will the quality and depth of her competition. As the first black African to join the European Ladies Tour, she is again making her own history.
However, for a perennial champion, taking part won’t be enough for her. Dlamini will set her sights on winning and then look for a new pin for which to gun. It’s all she’s known, ever since she was a little girl following in her father’s footsteps.
Shattering barriers in a sport steeped in privilege
She is well aware of her place in a game steeped in privilege and barriers. With every win, she shatters another wall and provides fresh inspiration. Her win in Soweto was especially dear to her, because she won in a place that felt like home.
“I played here three years ago and it was not looking good. The greens were not good and the fairways were bumpy. It was like coming to a whole different course when we played the pro-am here. I was pleasantly surprised and impressed,” she enthused about improvements to the layout.
As well as being a player, golfers are ambassadors and spokespeople for bigger issues, and Dlamini doesn’t shirk that aspect of her calling. Golf, especially women’s golf, needs all the friends and corporate backing it can get and Dlamini was sure to thank those who have resurrected the profile and stature of Soweto Country Club.
“We owe a huge debt to Selwyn Nathan for championing the refurbishment of this course. The Sunshine Tour rallied the support of the City of Joburg, the PGA Tour and the European Tour, the R&A and sponsors like Investec, Dimension Data, Telkom, SuperSport and PPC Cement to create something incredibly special here,” she elaborated.
“I know a lot of golfers who live in Soweto and who had to travel by taxi to go and practice at the better courses in Johannesburg. One of them lives two minutes away from the course. He came to support me in the first round and cannot wait to start practising here.”
Stars who are “different” are unwittingly beating new paths of inclusion by their very appearance in a sport still defined by its elitism and exclusivity. That path is then illuminated by the kind of success that Dlamini has racked up and, hopefully, will continue to.
She’s a torch and many are already following her reflective light. As winter creeps towards Southern Africa, the country’s best golfers will chase the sun in the Northern Hemisphere.
Thus, the Glendower range might be missing a familiar figure for the next few months, as Dlamini takes her game to a bigger stage.
Judging by her body of work this summer, she’s as ready as she will ever be.