2 January 2008
It has taken more than three decades for South Africa to produce a young black international campaigner; 32 years for someone to follow in the footsteps of 1976 French Open winner Vincent Tshabalala and make it onto the European Tour circuit.
For South Africans, the long wait is over.
On hearing the news that James Kamte had earned his card for the 2008 European Tour season, nine-time Major winner Gary Player was elated.
“When I met James, I told him he had the ability to go all the way,” Player said. “James has the temperament, the personality and determination of a champion. He will be a wonderful ambassador for South Africa. His achievements will open a floodgate of talent among the next generation.”
Vincent Tshabalala, who was ranked the number one long-iron player on the Sunshine Tour in 1976, agreed with his former sponsor, adding that Kamte has the game, the talent and the ability to listen and learn, which will see him count among the world’s best in years to come.
“James came to me a couple of years ago at Gillooleys Driving Range in Johannesburg, looking for advice on a particular chip-shot,” Tshabala said. “I guided him, he listened and he has since executed that shot to great affect.
“I also told him that a champion in the making has the ability to use all 14 clubs in the bag,” Tshabalala added. “Everyone can hit a driver, but only champions know when to settle for an iron.
“Two years ago, he was hammering his driver around every course. Now we see him using a 3-wood, 1- and 2-irons, chipping with confidence and giving himself chances when the putter runs cold. That is the sign of a champion in the making.”
Kamte’s road to Europe has been eventful, paved both with hardships and good fortune.
From the obscurity of a Queenstown township, this former caddie has risen into the big time and with it, the glitz, glamour, sponsorships and pressure that come with being South Africa’s rising black star.
But for “The Cobra”, everything is about right now . owning a title on the Sunshine Tour, owning a European Tour card, getting married to his long-time fiance Nicky – the wedding took place in December – and being a father to six-month old Tumi.
Kamte travels with a signature smile that almost touches the corners of his eyes, and the unwavering faith that this journey is all part of his destiny.
“I have kept my trust in God and I allow him to guide this journey,” says Kamte. “I have always maintained that, as long as you put in the hard work, God will do the rest.
“The biggest lesson I’ve learnt this past year is that God picks the time,” says Kamte. “No matter how hard I work, how much I trust, I needed to learn that He decides the where and when.”
A protege of St Francis Golf Club and, later, the Ernie Els Golf Foundation, Kamte arrived on the pro scene in 2003 under the watchful eye of coach Gavan Levenson.
“I was so out of my depth when I turned pro,” says Kamte, who ranked 138th after eight starts at the end of his rookie season.
“You think because you’re hot on the amateur scene, you know what you’re doing, but it’s a wake-up call when you are suddenly thrown in the deep end with guys that can really play.
“Gavan guided me along and the guys on the Sunshine Tour took me in, you know, they supported me and showed me the way. I got to 32nd on the money list in 2004. I think that was when I really knew I could go all the way.”
In February 2006, Kamte rose to prominence when he challenged at the Telkom PGA Championship, but his lack of experience under pressure showed in the final round. He tied for third, then capped the season with a tie for eighth at the season-ending Vodacom Tour Championship at CCJ.
Ranked a career-high 25th on the final Sunshine Tour Order of Merit, Kamte was also the highest-ranked black player for the season, a feat he would repeat at the end of 2006 when he climbed to a final ranking of 21st.
“Vincent Tshabalala was 34 when he ranked 15th in 1976, and that is still the record. But I am edging closer all the time. Besides, I still have 10 years to catch up,” jokes Kamte, who ranks 16th on the current Sunshine Tour money list.
That same year, Kamte became the first black South African to qualify for the Challenge Tour’s Peugeot Challenge in Barcelona.
“It was fantastic to qualify,” he says. “I wasn’t thinking about winning or being the first black player, I just wanted a good finish among the stiff competition. That’s when you learn, when you can gain from the experience of playing with some of the finest golfers in Europe.”
Aiming for Europe
At the start of the 2007 season, Kamte was clear about his goals.
“I’ve learnt a lot on the Sunshine Tour and I intend to keep on learning and improving so that I can campaign overseas on a regular basis,” he said at the time. “Mr Player told me last year that all I lacked was the belief that I could win.
“My goal is to win on the Sunshine Tour this year and get my Challenge Tour card for 2008. Then it’s straight to the European Tour.”
Little did Kamte know that not only would he achieve both goals, he would also pass GO.
Having qualified for the 2007 French Open, Kamte faced a sea of media as the first round leader in Toulouse.
“I had the flu and was struggling with my back, so I never expected to lead. I thought I was just playing well,” he said afterwards. “Then the putter went cold, my focus shifted and I let myself down. I lost my self-belief when things started going wrong.”
It was back to the drawing board. Kamte came back strong, with a top-20 and back-to-back top-10 finishes in Europe and a victory at home.
Kamte finished the 2007 Challenge Tour season ranked 38th after 14 starts and qualified for the Final Stage of the gruelling Qualifying School. Despite a busy season, he remained upbeat about his chances at San Rogue, emphasising that a card for the 2008 European Tour was not his main goal of the season.
“I am still knocking and I probably need another season on the Challenge Tour, but I have proven to myself that I have what’s needed to compete after winning at Dainfern.
“If things go my way, I might be coming home with a Tour card in my wallet. If they don’t, that’s the way things have to be.”
Kamte shot rounds of 71-70-73-73-70-72, proving his growing confidence and consistency under pressure, in the face of adverse weather conditions and under attack from a balky, frozen putter.
Card tucked safely in the back of his wallet, Kamte came home to prepare for his wedding.
“I know I can shoot low rounds, I’ve learned when to hold back and not get ahead of myself, and I am learning how to handle the pressure when I get into contention,” he said.
“And I believe I have what it takes to spring a surprise on the guys dominating the local and international scene – maybe in the not-too-distant future.”
Source: Sunshine Tour