Lewis Chitengwa thrives on distinction and challenge. Right now, he has both. As the only black African-born player on a major U.S. golf tour, the former Cavalier is on a quest to qualify for a professional golfer's dream, a PGA Tour card.
Two years ago, Chitengwa, 25, graduated from the University. Now he is grabbing every piece of wisdom from his rookie season on the Buy.Com Tour, one step below the PGA. He is 93rd on the Buy.Com money list with $37,813 on the season.
After some strong outings in June, including a tie for 11th at the Dayton Open, Chitengwa slumped in July and August, missing the cut in seven consecutive tournaments.
"I'm going to rest this week and try to get my game together," Chitengwa said from his home in Nashville. "Then I'll practice and see what I can do in the last three tournaments [of the tour]."
Born in Harare, Zimbabwe, Chitengwa's early exposure to the game was unusual in his native country. As a child he shagged balls for his father, once a top amateur in Africa, and shared a set of clubs with his mother and uncle.
"There are more opportunities here [in America], as far as courses, teachers and access to clubs," Chitengwa said. "I was lucky. My dad moved to a golf course. So when I was seven, I was sneaking onto the course."
But golf was not the only sport that came naturally to But golf was not the only sport that came naturally to Chitengwa. He was a track star in high school and competed in the 100- and 200-meter dashes, long jump and high jump. He played cricket and excelled in soccer, a game he loved and could have pursued professionally.
When his golf game steadily improved through his mid-teen years, Chitengwa knew he had a difficult decision. His choice was made easier when a trip to France at age 15 allowed him to represent Zimbabwe in an international juniors tournament. The event was high profile and high class.
"Because of the way we were treated and the courses we played, it was an amazing experience," he said. "I decided that golf was what I wanted to do."
In 1993, Chitengwa won the South African Amateur, the first black man to do so. The accomplishment earned him attention throughout Africa and the United States. His victory came at a time of violence and political unrest in South Africa, just before the crumbling of the nation's apartheid government and the election of Nelson Mandela.
"I played like any other tournament, but I knew what was going down," Chitengwa said. "I was nervous because of what I had read in the papers. And because I was playing well, each day there were more and more blacks in South Africa that came to watch."
When Chitengwa won, black spectators stormed the green, picked him up and threw him in the air. It was a rare moment in which the results of a golf tournament resonated in political and social arenas.
Following his victory in South Africa and his third win in the Zimbabwe Amateur, Chitengwa came to Virginia at the advice of 16-time PGA title winner Nick Price, also a native of Zimbabwe. He recommended Chitengwa take a scholarship before turning pro. The University accepted him after he spent a semester at Piedmont College. In 1995, Chitengwa began playing under Virginia coach Mike Moraghan.
Because Chitengwa was fluent in both English and Shona, his native tongue, Moraghan urged him to major in a foreign language like French. Instead, Chitengwa chose African-American Studies, a challenging undertaking since many Africans have never heard of Martin Luther King or Malcolm X.
While at the University, Chitengwa garnered an ACC Rookie of the Year Award and two All-American honorable mentions. Along with two tournament wins and 17 top-10 finishes, he placed seventh in the 1996 NCAA Championship - at that point it was the best finish by a Virginia golfer in 15 years.
"He's a great guy and a great player, and he has the chance to eventually play on the PGA Tour," Moraghan said. "He's excelled at everything, so it's just a matter of time."
After learning steadily in his first professional season, there are two ways Chitengwa can secure a spot on the tour. He can finish top 15 on the Buy.Com Tour or play well at next year's PGA qualifying school.
"I feel I can play my way into the top 15 and get my Tour card," Chitengwa said. "I don't doubt that. I just have to keep on fighting until the end."
Why does Chitengwa think he can play on the PGA Tour with Nick Price and Tiger Woods? In the 1992 Orange Bowl, Chitengwa, then considered the best international amateur player, played in the final group with Woods, the U.S.'s top amateur. Today, Chitengwa will tell you it was an honor to play with Woods, an athlete who is revered even in Zimbabwe. He also will kindly remind you that he beat Woods.