Commentary

Els rises with a new South Africa

Updated: July 25, 2012, 3:56 PM ET
By Farrell Evans | ESPN.com

On July 18, Nelson Mandela's 94th birthday was celebrated around the world. South Africans paid homage to their most famous national hero by performing acts of public service across the country.

At the Open Championship at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, one reporter reminded every player who came through the media center that it was Mandela's birthday.

In 2010, Louis Oosthuizen, a South African, had won the Open at St. Andrews on the birthday of the man who spent 27 years in prison for his fight against apartheid. Oosthuizen, a white Afrikaner, had on his bag that Sunday afternoon a black caddie named Zack Rasego, who grew up in poverty under the oppressive apartheid regime.

[+] EnlargeMandela
Lionel Bonaventure/AFP/GettyImagesWhile his countryman Ernie Els was teeing off in England, Nelson Mandela's birthday was a banner celebration at the Tour de France and elsewhere.
In accepting the Claret Jug, Oosthuizen acknowledged his pride in winning on Mandela's birthday.

This past Sunday, after taking his second Claret Jug, Ernie Els used the occasion to show his continued gratitude for all that Mandela has done to heal the lingering wounds of apartheid and build a nation for all South Africans.

Mandela had been sworn in as South Africa's president only a month before Els won the 1994 U.S. Open at Oakmont, his first major championship. Mandela called him afterward to offer congratulations.

"If I win, I told myself, I'd better thank President Mandela because I grew up in the era of apartheid and the changing into the democratic era, and President Mandela was right there," Els said Sunday night. "And so there's a lot of significance there in my life from the change from that and then President Mandela becoming president and me winning a golf tournament.

"So in a way we intertwined together in a crazy way. And I just felt he's been so important for us being where we are today as a nation and as a sports people."

This win may not lead to more majors or a return to No. 1 in the world for Els, but the 65-time worldwide winner has already proved to be for his country a model world citizen who can use sport to heal old wounds and build new bridges to opportunity and advancement.

I hope that in four years Els can represent South Africa in the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. He will be 46 years old in what will be the first Games held with golf since the 1904 St. Louis Games. Els has played for his country in World Cups and as part of Presidents Cup teams, but as one of the leading sports figures of post-apartheid South Africa, his presence as a competitor in an Olympic Games would symbolize the great strides his country has made through the years.

What better way to express the spirit of Mandela than for Els to lead the South African delegation into the opening ceremonies of the 2016 Games carrying the South African flag?

Els is just three years younger than Zola Budd. Most Americans best remember Budd as the barefoot-running short-haired teenage girl whose feet got tangled with Mary Decker's in the 3,000-meter women's final at the 1984 Los Angeles Games. But Budd famously had been granted a British passport to compete in those Games because her native South Africa had been banned from international competition prior to the 1964 Tokyo Games.

The International Olympic Committee wouldn't lift the sanctions on South Africa until 1991, allowing South African athletes to compete in the 1992 Games in Barcelona. Mandela's release from prison in February 1990 had been the catalyst for these changes.

Els, who grew up near Johannesburg, turned pro in '89, the year F.W. De Klerk became the country's last apartheid-era president. In '91, De Klerk introduced legislation to repeal all the racial laws that had kept the black majority in near-servitude to the white minority for generations. That same year, Els won his first pro tournament in South Africa on the Sunshine Tour, which didn't have black members regularly until the end of apartheid.

Since Els' first major win at the '94 U.S. Open at Oakmont during the infancy of the post-apartheid era, he has become a Hall of Famer and a humanitarian with causes that transcend the world of golf.

Since 2000, the R&A, which runs the Open Championship, has supported golf in sub-Saharan Africa with tournaments, golf course maintenance equipment and other grants. The governing body annually funds the All Africa Challenge Trophy, which brings together juniors from more than 14 African nations.

In South Africa, Els has a foundation that supports junior golfers from poor backgrounds. When Madalitso Muthiya became the first black African to qualify for a U.S. Open at Winged Foot in 2006, he was readily embraced by Els and the other South African players.

Last Wednesday when that persistent reporter continually evoked Mandela, none of us could have imagined the importance the great statesman would represent for the winner of the Claret Jug come Sunday afternoon.

Els, who is an ambassador on the South African Olympic Committee, gave in his remarks on Mandela a kind of send-off to all the spectators at Royal Lytham who are headed to the London Games. His message was that his triumph was more than just winning another golf tournament, more than just his first major win since 2002, more than just a guarantee of several more chances to win a Masters.

If there is a way, he seemed to suggest to the people, find more meaning in the Games than the medal count of your country. Els stood on the shoulders of men such as Mandela, De Klerk, and his countryman and golf idol, Gary Player, who all had cleared the way for him to be standing as the Open champion without the scorn and contempt of the rest of world.

Player, who had been an apologist for the apartheid regime early in his career before changing his views when his travels around the world helped him understand the full extent of the brutal system, endured for years in the late 1960s and early '70s threats on his life for being a white South African.

A few years ago Player reminded me that it had been him who had hired the first person of African descent to caddie at the Open Championship. In 1974 at the height of apartheid, Player had an African-American caddie named Alfred "Rabbit" Dyer on his bag for the championship at Lytham, when he won the last of his three Claret Jugs.

In 2003, Player was the captain of the international Presidents Cup team, which hosted the matches in South Africa. In the matches, which ended in a tie, Els was one of three South Africans on the team. Mandela made an appearance at the opening ceremonies for what was the biggest golf event ever in the country.

Since Els' first major win at the '94 U.S. Open at Oakmont during the infancy of the post-apartheid era in South Africa, he has become a Hall of Famer and a humanitarian with causes that transcend the world of golf. His commitment to sharing information and research about autism has brought international attention to the disorder that affects one in 88 American children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

[+] EnlargeErnie Els, Nelson Mandela & Tiger Woods
Chris Condon/PGA/Getty ImagesErnie Els, Nelson Mandela and Tiger Woods got together during the 2003 Presidents Cup.
A few years ago, Els and his wife, Leizl, announced their 10-year-old son, Ben, has the disability. With that announcement, golf took a backseat to his efforts to start his autism foundation, but now that he has solved the administrative hurdles of starting a new organization, he can better concentrate on his game.

"It took quite a bit of time to set up the [foundation]," he said Sunday. "And I think emotionally or mentally, I'm also in a better place than I have been in the last couple of years with the whole situation."

The dominant themes in Els' life -- family, golf and the plight of South Africa -- coalesced around the Open Championship in a courageous and unexpected win over some much younger foes. And when it seemed like Adam Scott's unraveling over the last four holes would leave a sad coda over the tournament, Els reminded us there are bigger things than golf.

Intertwined. This word Els used to describe his long connection to Mandela over these years will stay with me much longer than the bogeys Scott made down the stretch to lose his grasp on the Claret Jug.

Hopefully that same prescient reporter will be at the 2013 Open Championship at Muirfield and Els will have an opportunity to salute Mandela on his 95th birthday.