JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA | On a farm deep in the Kalahari, 19-year-old Daniel Slabbert hits golf balls into the bushveld. Pounding them with his driver, the balls drop into the scrub about 300 metres (330 yards) away, which is amazing considering he has only one leg.
It’s quite apt that Slabbert should have found his greatest expression in a game where bad bounces are common, for it was at the age of 14 when a bad bounce changed his life forever.
“I was jumping on a trampoline alongside the farm house. I landed slightly off balance, and it shot me towards this small window. My left leg went through the window, and that was it.”
Every major artery and tendon above his knee was severed instantly. Slabbert was rushed to the nearby town of Kathu, but the local hospital did not have enough blood for him. So they contacted the town of Kuruman about 60km away, and put a heavily bleeding Slabbert into the ambulance.
On the way there, the ambulance had a blow-out, wasting precious time. They managed to get him the blood in time, and then transferred him to Kimberley where he spent, amazingly, only six days in the hospital following an amputation through his left knee.
Only three months later, Slabbert was back on the family farm and walking again with his new prosthetic. And only five years later, he has emerged as one of the brightest stars in South African disabled golf, finishing runner up for the second year in succession to another young star in Iglin Grobbelaar in this week’s Nedbank SA Disabled Open at the Randpark Golf Club.
“He is a phenomenal talent and I think he’ll be a champion for many years to come. But he’s also just such a wonderful boy,” says Eugene Vorster, president of the South African Disabled Golf Association (SADGA).
Slabbert arrived at Randpark still in the midst of his Grade 12 exams, and with this being his first tournament of the year.
Unable to afford to travel to tournaments, Slabbert has received extensive support from Kathu businessman Chris Wood. And this year also marked the first time that the Free State & Northern Cape Golf Union paid Slabbert’s entry fee and expenses for the SA Disabled Open.
If Slabbert’s quick recovery was miraculous, then his golf swing has followed suit. As most leg amputee golfers will attest to, the best scenario is an amputation below the knee, which still allows for the pivot action so key to the swing.
Slabbert does not have this, yet still manages to hit the ball prodigious distances with a swing so fluid as to leave most able-bodied golfers envious. And he plays off an eight handicap.
But the real beauty of Slabbert’s game lies in the nature of a true farm boy of very humble upbringing. He helps his parents and 10-year-old sister with their subsistence farming, and is home-schooled by his mother.
He remains an avid hunter, and often tracks buck as deep as 10km into the bush, walking all the way with his father.
“The funniest thing I ever saw while hunting was my dad wounding an ostrich,” he recalls. “He then wrestled with the ostrich and the two of them must have cleared about 10 square metres of bush as they tackled each other, before he managed to kill it.”
There is a palpable excitement about the potential of Slabbert and his place amongst a wave of young stars making their presence felt in South African disabled golf.
Grobbelaar, 24, broke through with his maiden victory in this event last year. Grobbelaar was always a promising golfer, and was a 12 handicap at the age of 11 as well as a talented cyclist, when his life changed one weekend.
He was competing in a cycle race with his father. Cycling behind, his front wheel touched his father’s bike and he swerved into oncoming traffic. He went right under a car and was paralysed from the neck down for a month. Amazingly, his feeling started to come back thereafter, but he has been left with some spasticity on his left side and other complications. But it hasn’t stopped him getting down to a three handicap.
And Reinard Schuhknecht completes this trio of young stars. The eight handicap lost his arm in a freak electrical accident. He and a friend climbed on the roof to jump into their pool. Schuhknecht came too close to some power lines and had 11,000 volts go through him.
But you get a sense from Slabbert that the boy is not yet quite sure he wants to leave the peace of the bushveld to become the new torchbearer for South African disabled golf.
“The Nedbank SA Disabled Open has really put Daniel on the map. I’ve told him that he needs to think very carefully about his future, because he has great opportunities waiting for him,” says Vorster. With golf now an Olympic sport, Paralympic glory is something which beckons for Slabbert, whose sense of humour remains as sharp as the crack of his hunting rifle. “You know the thing about the Paralympics – they have special parking for normal people there,” jokes veteran disabled golfer Ben van Zyl as he chats to Slabbert. No doubt the 54-year-old remembers something of himself and a father who made him his first prosthetic leg out of two steel rods which he still wears to this day in favour of the more modern ones.