I’ve always made a total effort, even when the odds seemed entirely against me. I never quit trying; I never felt that I didn’t have a chance to win.  

– Arnold Palmer, American professional golfer

Legendary Malaysian golfer Nellan Vellasamy, who passed away in Petaling Jaya last Saturday, had a soft spot for Sarawak.

An old golfing friend in the days when I was a sports reporter with The Malay Mail in Kuala Lumpur, Nellan was due to teach a batch of young Sarawakian golfers at the Samarahan Golf and Country sometime in June.

His untimely demise cut short the life of a poor caddy who rose to become Malaysia’s top professional and teaching pro.

For the last six years, each time Nellan was in Kuching, he would ask me to show him around town and bring him for a ‘laksa’ breakfast.

 He even had time to give me a game and a couple of pointers.

Nellan, who was the eldest of 10 siblings, grew up around the Royal Selangor Golf Club (RSGC) area in Kampung Baru where his father worked as a labourer.

Like other teenage kampung boys from Ampang, the 13-year-old was a part-time caddy at the country’s premier golf club while picking up the game.

He dropped out of school after his secondary three examinations and was one of Malaysia’s first few caddies who made a name for himself.

Well versed with golf etiquette and popular with the RSGC members, he was often hand-picked to caddy for VIPs such as former Malaysian prime ministers Tunku Abdul Rahman and Tun Abdul Razak, and Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew.

At the age of 19, Nellan played in the Malaysian Open and never looked back since, representing the country in two World Cups.

In 1976, both he and Zainal Abidin Yusof finished 32nd in the World Cup at Palm Springs, USA.

A year later, Vellan and classmate Bobby Lim Yat Foong went on to achieve a record 11th place in the 1977 World Cup at Wack Wack Golf & Country Club in Manila, Philippines.

With his outlandish golfing attire and his stylish swings, Nellan amused greats such as Spaniard Seve Ballesteros, Australian Greg Norman, German Bernhard Langer and South African Gary Player.

As Malaysia’s golf ‘ambassador’ he has even rubbed shoulders with veterans such as Gene Sarazen, Sam Snead, and Arnold Palmer, the American who designed Sarawak’s Damai Golf Club.

Like his hero Lee Trevino, a caddy and self-taught golfer with a unique swing, Nellan enjoyed being a golfing ‘court jester’.

Nellan also adopted the outlandish outfit of the late American golfer Payne Stewart and amused the golfing fraternity with his jokes and antics.

After giving up competitive golf in 2004, he became a teaching pro with Kelab Golf Negara Subang, Tasik Utara Golf Club in Johor and Seremban International Golf Club.

Later he was appointed by the Saujana Golf & Country Club to share his skills with visitors all over the world.

He became a full-time golf teacher after a group of prominent Indian visitors took lessons from him and invited him to teach beginners and juniors in India.

Sadly, Nellan passed away before a book on his life titled ‘The Legend’ could be launched. It was shelved due to the outbreak of Covid-19.

Nellan often joked about being “a billionaire” because he was able to impart his knowledge and skills as a teacher by motivating the young.

And in fact, his selfless attitude of sharing his experience and motivating junior golfers to be competitive, is legendary.

During his lifetime, Nellan had two narrow escapes — once in 1983 when his flight from Singapore crash-landed in a swamp during a downpour and in 2007 when he beat colon cancer.

On his close call in the MH684 crash on Dec 18, 1983, Nellan was with his wife and daughter while another former caddy and World Cupper M Ramayah was also on the aircraft.

Ramayah told me: “We landed in the swamp and on disembarking I found myself in knee deep water. So, we got off with my golf bag happy to be alive.”

Meanwhile devastated by his demise, his childhood friend and World Cup partner Bobby said the highlight of their 60-year friendship was “as a pair, we had great moments beating some of the big names in Europe and America”.

In the words of veteran golf writer George Das, Nellan was a larger than life figure. 

“Truely, Nellan was golf and golf was Nellan.”

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the New Sarawak Tribune.