Civil war derailed caddie's playing dreams


If you and your playing partner are not the curious sort, you could walk a few miles and while away an afternoon and never realize you had been in the presence of perhaps the greatest golfer ever to come out of West Africa.

Only if you ask will he tell you the story of James Lebbie:

How he grew up in Sierra Leone in the years after its 1961 independence. How he learned the game by caddying at a beachside course favored by expats in his home town of Freetown and how his first swings were made with makeshift clubs fashioned out of sticks. How he turned pro as a teenager and played against the likes of Seve Ballesteros and Nick Price as a young man on the old Safari Tour. How, one magical week 25 years ago, he went wire-to-wire to win the Nigerian Open, the first African to do so, beating Ryder Cuppers and European champions in the process.

And if you press him, he might even tell you how it all fell apart - the story of the rebels, the civil war, the last flight out of Freetown, the land mine planted on the fourth fairway, the dried-up sponsorships, the lost opportunities.

Hearing all that, you might even feel sorry for Lebbie - 58 years old now and right back where he started, carrying the clubs of the more fortunate. But as he says himself, "America is the land of opportunity," and he still has life left in him, and he still has enough game that the other caddies at Congressional know not to bet big money against him during their Monday games.

And he still believes he can compete here for a few more years, then return someday to Africa and restore what was lost.

---

The story of James Lebbie has two acts, each with a golf course setting. The first act takes place at Freetown Golf Club, hard by the Atlantic Ocean, in the beachside Freetown village of Lumley. The second act takes place at Congressional, the famous jewel of a club in Bethesda, the site of three U.S. Opens and where Lebbie began caddying three years ago.

As you might imagine, other than their shared purpose of providing land for the pursuit of an ancient sport, Congressional and Freetown have little in common.

Congressional features 36 pristine holes, with silky greens and meticulously manicured fairways.

Freetown began with nine holes, plus three more crudely constructed by the caddies on a back piece of land since they weren't allowed to play on the course itself. Though it now has a full 18 holes, like many African courses, it has "browns" instead of greens - a mixture of sand, grass and oil that must be smoothed over with a net at regular intervals.

One other distinction between the two courses: As far as anyone knows, Congressional never had a land mine planted on one of its fairways.

Lebbie had long since left his post as Freetown's head pro, in favor of a tournament golf career, when the 1991 military coup sent Sierra Leone into an 11-year civil war that ultimately claimed 50,000 lives - including the mother of one of Lebbie's children, murdered by rebels as she returned to her village from a trip to the market.

Sierra Leone's military eventually took over the golf course as a training base, which is when it was discovered to have been planted with a mine. A captured rebel led soldiers to its location, on the fourth hole. The mine was detonated and dug out, and the captive was executed on the spot.

Lebbie's career in Sierra Leone is divided neatly into two halves - before the war and after.

Before the war, he was a rising star, having turned pro in 1976 and notching his first win outside Sierra Leone at the 1980 Ghana Open. Helped by a sponsorship deal from J&B Whiskey, he won tournaments across Africa - including the Open titles in Gambia and Togo - and competed in a handful of events each summer on the Challenge Tour, Europe's second-tier tour.

"During that time," Lebbie said, "I was the Tiger Woods of West Africa."

In those days, many B- and C-level European Tour players - including future stars such as Nick Faldo and Ian Woosnam - would spend their winters in Africa, playing on the now-defunct Safari Tour, a series of a half dozen or so opens in Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Kenya, Zambia and Zimbabwe that had six-figure purses and official sanctioning by the European Tour.

"It's a whole new golfing experience," golf commentator David Feherty once said of his experiences playing - and surviving - in Africa, "trying to play golf in 100-degree temperatures when you have cold sweats and projectile diarrhea. Every swing is an adventure."

In December 1991, Lebbie, at the peak of his skills, found himself leading after each of the first three rounds of the Nigerian Open, a tournament whose past winners included Vijay Singh and Sandy Lyle. For the final round, Lebbie was paired with Welshman David Llewellyn, who had been the 1971 European Tour rookie of the year and the 1988 AGF Biarritz Open champion and who trailed Lebbie by four shots.

On the par-5 first tee, Llewellyn hit his drive down the fairway, and Lebbie hit his into a palm tree.

"His caddie shimmies up the tree, and there's his ball," Llewellyn recalled in a telephone interview from Wales. "James takes a drop, hits a 3-wood up by the green, pitches on and makes the putt for par. Then on the second hole, a par-4, he holes out from the fairway for eagle. He was an absolute genius on the browns and just a wonderful, gracious guy. I always thought it was one of the great unsung victories I've ever seen. The pressure for him was enormous. This was life-changing money for him. And he held himself together and won."

Indeed, Lebbie's victory came with a first-place check for about $31,000, which allowed him to build a house in Freetown, which he retains to this day. (The first thing guests see when they enter, he said, is a blown-up photo of Lebbie and the late Ballesteros from a cocktail reception at a tournament they played together in Morocco.) He was also, at that moment, leading the Safari Tour's order of merit, with its prize of a full-membership European Tour card for 1992.

"I am the happiest man in the world," he is quoted as saying in news accounts. In a greenside victory speech, he addressed the other African players in the field, saying, "Guys, if I can do it, you can do it."

---

Meanwhile, in Sierra Leone, the rebels, whose uprising began inland, far away from Freetown, were getting closer to the coast. In January 1992, Lebbie was scheduled to play in the Zimbabwe Open, but with the rebels closing in, the authorities ordered Freetown's airport closed. Lebbie managed to catch the last flight out - headed to Brussels. He had to connect in Brussels and then London before making it to Zimbabwe, where he shot a 79 in the first round, rallied with a 65 in the second round to make the cut and finished tied for 39th.

"Nick Price, after I shot 65," Lebbie recalled, referring to the Zimbabwe native who won three major titles, "said, 'Who the hell is James Lebbie?' " Reached through his agent, Price said he did not remember Lebbie.

Unable to return home, Lebbie finished the Safari Tour season with a pair of disappointing finishes and waited through a lonely spring until he could fly to Europe to try to qualify for July's British Open. He failed there, and the best year of his career ended in a flameout. He would not win another significant tournament. In his final appearance in the Challenge Tour record book, he finished tied for 48th in the 1999 Open de Côte d'Ivoire, won by 23-year-old Englishman Ian Poulter, who would go on to play in five Ryder Cups.

"If I was born in America or in Europe, it might have been a different story," Lebbie said. "But I was born in Africa - and in Sierra Leone, for that matter. There was no future there."

In the early days of the war, Lebbie had sent his girlfriend, pregnant at the time with a daughter, to the United States to live with some relatives. James joined them for good in 2003. Though he and his girlfriend never married, their daughter, Melanie, is now 24 and living in California.

Lebbie scraped together enough money to try playing on a mini-tour in North Carolina, but by then he was 45 years old, and though he managed to win a couple of small tournaments, he couldn't sustain a decent living. Despite countless attempts on both continents, he never managed to qualify for either a British or U.S. Open - losing in a sudden-death playoff in his closest brush with a berth in the latter.

Eventually, he took a job giving golf lessons at Langston Golf Course in Washington, D.C., remaining for 10 years and ascending to driving range manager - on his regular trips home to Sierra Leone, he would load a suitcase with used driving-range mats and wire buckets to donate to Freetown Golf Club - before new management came in, realized he didn't have certification as a professional instructor and cut him loose.

That's how he wound up, three years ago, at Congressional.

He caddies up to six days a week during the peak season, often carrying two bags at a time. On Mondays, though, the caddies get to play, and it is here that the years melt away. On those days, Lebbie is the Tiger Woods of the caddyshack, taking money off the younger guys, at least those still willing to play him for money. At last month's annual Congressional caddies' tournament, Lebbie narrowly lost to a 25-year-old colleague who plays on a mini-tour in Florida in the spring.

Lebbie figures he might start practicing again regularly, get his game back in tournament shape and perhaps try to qualify for some events on the over-50 Champions Tour. And then, eventually, he will return to Sierra Leone, to Lumley Beach, to Freetown Golf Club. It is a shell of what it once was - and it wasn't much to begin with.

"Last time I was there, I had tears in my eyes to see what shape it was in," he said. "Golf is almost dead in Sierra Leone. I want to go back and see what I can do to bring golf back. Let's see if we can get that Safari Tour going again."

Even some of Lebbie's colleagues and bosses are unaware of his prolific background, that his name is on the same Nigerian Open trophy as Vijay Singh's, that he once shared a tee box and a round of cocktails with Seve Ballesteros and that the day he caught the last flight out of Freetown also may have been the day his playing career, which had been on the verge of taking flight, instead began its descent.

But if they don't know those things, it's only because they never asked.


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