Five months ago Llewellyn Barnes was a homeless man living on the streets of Pretoria.
Against all odds, the 59-year-old will participate in a Sunshine Senior Tour event, the Fidelity Pro-Am, on March 16 and 17 at the Country Club Johannesburg.
A difficult childhood
At an early age, Barnes faced several obstacles. His father died when he was 10 and he was separated from his mom and his siblings as she couldn’t care for him on her salary as a domestic worker.
He later found himself living in a hostel on the Zwartkops golf course in Centurion and his sisters were placed in foster care in the Eastern Cape.
It was at Zwartkops where Barnes’ love affair with the game of golf began. In the morning, he would attend school and in the afternoon, he would run to the golf course looking for caddie opportunities.
“I carried my first golf bag when I was only 10 years old. Those days, working as a caddie 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,” said Barnes.
At the age of 13, Barnes ran away from Zwartkops after suffering abuse from both teachers and students and found himself in Durban, sleeping in a kombi and selling newspapers to support himself.
He later learnt that his mother was living in Uitenhage in the Eastern Cape and he did his best to reunite with her.
“I never thought I would see my mom again. When I eventually found her, she was living with another man who didn’t have much time for us. They were always drinking and fighting and I knew I couldn’t stay there.
“I was soon sent to a school in Cape Town, but I didn’t stay long. What are you going to do when you are 18 and in Grade 8? I ran away.”
Barnes then went to live with his grandmother, aunt and three cousins in East London. Instead of being welcomed, Barnes felt more like a liability and was pressured to find a job. Being uneducated, opportunities were limited and he struggled to find employment.
Experiencing hunger and homelessness
Instead of relying on his family, Barnes decided to go back to Zwartkops to make a small income. He returned to work as a caddie on the golf course.
“You don’t need to be educated when you are a caddie, you just need to know the game. I caddied for a couple of 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,” said Barnes.
When work was slow, Barnes would dive into the Hennops River – even on cold winter mornings – in search of golf balls he could sell.
“Sometimes you were lucky, in the summer, when the floods would come, you would find hundreds of balls under the bridge. On days where I couldn’t find any balls, I would have nothing to eat,” said Barnes.
When the golf course underwent renovations, Barnes had to leave and with nowhere to go, the then 25-year-old was forced to live on the streets. Despite his difficult circumstances, he found solace in playing golf whenever the opportunity arose.
On days when he found caddie jobs around Centurion, he would have some money to eat and a place to sleep for the night. Other nights he would sleep in the bush or on the pavement.
“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 that the tsotsies wouldn’t kill me. I slept with one eye open, waiting for morning,” said Barnes.
An unlikely friendship
In January 2019, Barnes’ luck started to change.
The golf club where he was caddying offered him a storage container to live in. Soon after Barnes made an unlikely friend by the name of Gareth Frost who was running a “breakfast club” on Saturday mornings for the homeless at Weirda bridge.
The pair connected through their mutual love of sport and in time formed a special and unbreakable bond. After breakfast one morning, Barnes took a leap of faith and told Frost that he wanted to play professional golf and all he needed was a sponsor.
“I am used to requests from my homeless friends. They normally ask for a pair of shoes or shirts. When Llewellyn asked if I would like to sponsor him because he believed he could play professional golf, I didn’t think he was serious. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that there could be something special about this guy and I thought God was speaking to me,” said Frost.
For senior amateur golfers, the fastest way to get playing status in any major tournament is to make it through Qualifying School.
Frost followed the advice of the Senior Tour directors, learnt the requirements and gathered the funds for Barnes to enter Q-School in January 2020.
Showcasing his natural ability, Barnes silenced naysayers with a handicap of +2 despite not playing golf for over a year.
Struggling to hide his excitement, Barnes phoned Frost to tell him the news that he had qualified as a professional golfer with provisional exception to participate in the Sunshine Senior Tour.
Crowdfunding on BackaBuddy
To participate in the Senior Tour, which gets under way in March, Barnes will need to cover his travelling, lodging and will also need new attire and a new set of golf clubs.
Frost and non-profit organisation Fearless Love have created a campaign on donations based crowdfunding platform BackaBuddy to appeal to the public to support this rising star.
The crowdfunding campaign was launched on February 8 and has thus far raised a total of R6 211.96 towards the fundraising target of R45 000 with contributions from 7 donors.
“I am so excited about the Senior Tour. The chance to show my true colours means the world to me. It has always been my dream to participate in a proper tournament against professional players. This is an opportunity for me to let go of the weight of my past and look to a new future. My only focus is the game now and I am practicing to be at my best,” said Barnes.