Llewellyn Barnes was so poor growing up he would use the broken leg of a stool to hit bottle corks as practice for golf, the sport he loved.
Hardship has been a constant for the South African who – as recently as December – was homeless, sleeping on verandas in Pretoria and unsure where his next meal was coming from.
But thanks to an unlikely golf dream that had survived both decades of denial and considerable substance abuse, his life changed in a stroke.
Meaning that last month, Barnes made his debut in a professional golf tournament – at the age of 59.
“I was very nervous at the first hole – my hands shook so bad I almost missed the ball,” he told BBC Sport Africa. “It was nerve-racking.”
Yet it was also the moment a ‘dream came true’ for this former caddie, who would impressively make the cut, amid a life of grind.
“If I didn’t get a bag to caddie, I [would] dig golf balls out of the river, sell them to players and then get something to eat,” he explained. “Sometimes you didn’t get anything so you would just starve for the night.”
In the rough
When he was 10, Llewellyn’s father died – so leaving his mother struggling to provide for her seven children.
“It was tough for her to keep us all together,” he recalled. “Welfare came in and sent us away.”
Being separated from his family was difficult, especially given the conditions at his boarding school in Centurion, located midway between Johannesburg and the capital Pretoria.
Yet his challenging school had a silver lining in that it introduced him to one of his life passions.
“Teachers were not that great – always beating us and looking down on us,” he recalled nearly half a century on.
“I was very lucky my school was inside a golf course in Zwartkop, [near] Pretoria, and that is where I found golf and fell in love with it.”
“It looked so peaceful when you got on the golf course. You just felt like always being out there, it looked like a paradise.”
After school, the boys would be picked to caddie, a job that Llewellyn never wanted to miss.
“Whenever they came for caddies, I would always be the first one because I wanted the money,” he said. “At that time it was [nearly half a dollar], which was a lot of money.”
Life at the school became so unbearable when he was 13, he says, that he ran away to Durban on the southern coast, where he sold newspapers and slept in public transport vehicles to survive.
The relative haven did not last long though as he was forced back to school, this time in Cape Town where – finding his experience little different – he gave it up for good.
“I was already 18 years old so I quit school and decided to go back to the golf course at ZwartKop where I would caddie, dig balls out of the river and sell them to keep myself alive,” he explained.
As finding employment with no formal education was not easy, Llewellyn moved from one menial job to another, in between caddying opportunities, before ending up homeless, often sleeping in the foliage of the course.
“I was sleeping on the golf course just to be away from the road,” he said. “At night you could not sleep as you had to watch out for gangs. It was apartheid in those days and there were a lot of things happening.”
Llewellyn caddied steadily between 1986 to 1999, even doing so in Zimbabwe for a while, but life on the streets eventually took its toll, especially as the work dried up.
At the turn of the century, he fell victim to substance abuse, including the use of Mandrax, a sedative known as a Quaalude outside of South Africa, where a drug which was popular in the 1970s is still widely consumed.
“I was taking drugs like Mandrax, drinking alcohol, smoking and stuff like that,” he admitted. “But I would come to my senses and think: ‘I don’t want to die like this, this cannot be my life, I have to make changes.'”
Llewellyn did exactly that by moving away from his regular hang-outs and trying to get more caddie work, but making ends meet and getting himself off the streets still proved a challenge too far.
“These days a lot of people do not take caddies anymore as they take the club car or push the trolley,” he said.
“Those that take caddies pay them 200 rand (US$10) for the four hours and that is maybe once or twice a week so you must save the money for food for the whole week until you make more. There’s no way you can go pay rent.”
A chance encounter late last year at a breakfast soup kitchen for the homeless earned him a chance at the golfing dream that had often proved a nightmare over its half-century existence.
In December, he took a long shot as he approached Gareth Frost, who ran the soup kitchen, for help to enter a golf tournament.
“Llewellyn approached me one morning and asked if I would be willing to sponsor him an entry into a professional golf tournament – I thought he was joking,” Frost told BBC Sport Africa.
But Llewellyn, who had finally decided to do something about his life-long ambition to make it as a golfer, was deadly serious.
“This was a far step from providing a warm breakfast but on the second occasion when he asked if I would consider his request, I decided to follow through and see where it would lead,” added Frost.
It was the start of a heart-warming journey.
Frost found out that for Llewellyn to compete in the Sunshine senior tour, a professional tournament for golfers aged over 50, he would need to pass a qualifying tournament.
This cost 4,000 rand (US$200), with Frost kindly sponsoring Llewellyn on his unlikely dream.
With a set of second-hand mismatched clubs, Llewellyn grabbed the opportunity in fine style – finishing in the top 15 to earn an invite to a tournament on the tour.
Even though he would need more money to be able to compete, his life was already beginning to change as Frost – with the invaluable help of the Fearless Love Foundation charity – engineered a crowdfunding campaign which eventually raised over 140,000 rand (US$7,500).
The money enabled Llewellyn to register for the tournament and buy kit and basic necessities.
“I had nothing – no clothing, shoes, blankets, food,” he said.
On the fairway
Llewellyn also received golf equipment, including a new set of clubs from a golf kit manufacturer, and on 16 March, he finally played his first professional tournament – at the Fidelity Pro-Am in Johannesburg.
After carding six over in the first round, he made the cut to contest the final day where his overall score of 160 meant he finished in the top 45 – no mean feat given his inexperience.
“I never gave up dreaming that one day I would make it to the professional side, never mind that I’m a little gone in my years,” he said.
“My first tournament was a dream come true.”
Only the top 25 earned money but Llewellyn was not disappointed with his performance, believing – understandably – that he can only get better.
Yet any chance to prove this has been halted by coronavirus, which has hit South Africa hard and which has also disrupted his plans for future tournaments given the sport’s abrupt halt.
Describing the current void in golf as ‘painful’, the sport has at least changed his life for a golf course in Pretoria has offered him a place to live – an on-site shipping container.
He said: “I came here to sell balls and found that the person I was selling to was someone I knew from before. I asked if I could come caddie here and he said yes and they gave me a container to stay in.”
Although not its original intention, he is surviving on the money left over from the crowdfunding campaign while hoping the start of his golf career, at an age when many are considering retirement, is far from over.
“Being 59 feels like the end of the world – you must now get your pension, sit down and grow old – but I want to play golf and work hard at it,” he said.
The self-taught golfer’s biggest ambition is to give others who are financially disadvantaged like him an opportunity to play a sport that is often out of reach.
He said: “If I start making money, I want to set up a golf academy for people that are homeless so they can get out of the streets because I was homeless and all I needed was a boost in life.”