'I have no words. I feel blessed': one man's journey from homelessness to professional golfer

14 February 2020 - 15:26 By Naledi Shange

Until five months ago, Llewellyn Barnes was homeless and living on the streets in Pretoria. Next month, against all odds, he will participate in the Sunshine Golf Tournament among professional players. Support Llewellyn on BackaBuddy: https://www.backabuddy.co.za/streets-to-sunshine

Llewellyn Barnes has gone from sleeping on the street, praying that tsotsis would not kill him, to teeing off in a new direction as a promising professional golfer.

The 59-year-old man has spent most of his life homeless, only eating a decent meal if he managed to get a caddying gig at the Zwartkops Golf Course in Centurion, or sold the golf balls he had fished out of the Hennops River.

Several months ago, after getting the big break which saw him swap the streets of Pretoria for a bed in a container at the golf course, Barnes took a leap of faith when he asked his friend, Gareth Frost, to sponsor him to play golf professionally.

Barnes has now qualified as a professional golfer and is set to play in a major tournament next month which could open doors to a better life.

His journey was detailed in a post on the crowdfunding page BackABuddy, where he is seeking funding to get to the Sunshine Tour.

The post stated that Barnes’ love affair with golf began as a youngster, after school, when he would rush to the golf course to look for caddy opportunities.

“I carried my first golf bag when I was only 10. Those days, working as a caddy paid well. I was paid 30c for a day’s work, enough to buy bread and a cold drink. This is where my love for the game started. I dreamed that one day I would become a professional golfer,” he was quoted as saying.

But when his father died and his mother gave him and his sisters up for adoption, Barnes’s tough upbringing saw him run away to KwaZulu-Natal, where he slept in a minibus taxi and sold newspapers to feed himself.

Years later, after failing to reconnect with his mother and experiencing difficulties living with relatives, his path led back to Zwartkops, where he again worked as a caddy.

“I caddied for few years, sleeping under a tree after a day on the golf course. On cold winter nights, the other caddies and I would make huge fires to stay warm. It wasn’t fun and it wasn’t easy, but we made it through together,” he said.

On days when caddying work was slow, he sustained himself by finding golf balls in the Hennops River. 

“Sometimes you were lucky. In summer, when the floods would come, you would find hundreds of balls under the bridge. On days when I couldn’t find any balls, I would have nothing to eat,” he said.

Barnes was forced to leave the golf course when it was turned into an estate, and he was again back on the street, sleeping in the bush or on the pavements of Centurion.

“Life on the streets was tough but I had to manage. I had no one to look up to, no one to complain to. I had no family, no place to call home. I was alone. At night, I would pray the tsotsis wouldn’t kill me. I slept with one eye open, waiting for morning,” he said.

Last year, when officials at the golf club heard he was homeless, they offered him a container to stay in and, as fate would have it, he struck up a friendship with Frost, who ran a breakfast club for the homeless in the area.

They were both passionate about golf.

Barnes eventually plucked up the courage to ask Frost to find someone who would invest in him and push his golfing career further.

Frost agreed and followed the advice of the senior tour directors, learned the requirements and gathered the funds for Barnes to enroll for qualifying school.

Barnes has since qualified as a professional golfer and is now set to partake in the Senior Tour, a professional tournament that is part of the Sunshine Tour.

For this tournament, Barnes needs clothing, a new set of golf clubs, travelling and lodging costs. He requested assistance to raise R45,000 for the tournament. 

As word about Barnes’ plight went viral through the BackABuddy campaign, scores of people in South Africa and abroad opened their pockets and purses.

By Friday, Barnes had surpassed his target and had raised more than R121,000.

Speaking to TimesLIVE from the golf course where he was practising for the tournament, he said: “It is like a blessing from up and above. The support I got is amazing. I want to thank all the people who believed in me. I have no words. I really feel blessed and I am just at a loss of words. It is a dream come true for me.”

Barnes said there was something special about the game of golf. 

“Golf is an individual sport, a gentleman’s sport,” he said. “There’s no kicking or pushing or hurting each other. It’s you, the grass and the ball.

“When it comes to golf players, even when they are angry, they show it by just hitting the ball harder.”

Barnes likened the rolling green lawns of the golf course to “paradise”.

After a lifetime of hardship, Barnes said he felt this opportunity was coming at the right time.

“It is coming 15 years before I go on pension but I don’t want to [live off a social grant],” he said.

“I want to work. I want to build a church and a school on the same property and collect all the homeless children and teach them this game, which is so therapeutic. I want to be a father to them and give them something I never had,” he said.