As the world reacts to the sad news of Nelson Mandela’s passing at the age of 95, one of South Africa’s finest-ever golfers, Ernie Els, has paid his own tribute to his country’s former president.
Els, a winner of four majors, was speaking this morning at the Nedbank Golf Challenge in Sun City where players are wearing black ribbons out of respect to the man affectionately known as ‘Madiba’. A minute's silence was also observed.
Here’s what Ernie had to say:
Your initial thoughts on the day?
It is a very sad day. A very sad day for South Africa and the world really. We have lost one of the iconic leaders of our time. You cannot say anything bad about the man. He fought for what he believed in, went to prison for so many years and came out to lead our country up until now. He was the father of our country and our continent. It’s just very sad that he had to go. He was 95 and led a full life but a lot of that wasn’t spent on what he was so good at because he was away for so many years.
You have met the man, you must have some personal memories?
I get him for the first time in 1994 with Mr (Johann) Rupert when we had a dinner together and then after that we stayed in touch. I used to play that tournament at Houghton and his home was very close to Houghton Golf Club. He came over one time and we exchanged gifts with each other. That was kind of a Press function but I have still got the picture from that day in 1996 in my office in the US. And then every time I won a tournament he used to call me.
"He was our President and the man who changed our lives" - Ernie Els
I remember flying to London on one occasion. We were sitting up front and then Mr Mandela came onto the plane last. He was sitting in the front seat and he saw me and my daughter sitting next to me and all of a sudden he didn’t really want to see me anymore – he wanted to talk to my daughter. He got Samantha to go up there and she sat on his lap and he spoke to her like she was his grandchild. They were special times and the little time we had together was very special. He was just the most amazing person I have ever met.
How did you find out last night?
I started to get a lot of text messages coming through, mostly from the US, and I checked it out and then put the television on and it was all over the news. That is how we heard about it.
Is there a sense for you and the other South African players that today will be an emotional day on the course?
Very tough, yes. He was our President and the man who changed our lives. It could have been so different in South Africa but he kept his head and kept everyone going forward. I was in the Air Force when the ANC was banned. I remember those days in the 1980s when the Government was against the ANC. You know, they were our enemies. And then President Mandela comes in and takes over the country and leads it in a democratic way. He was an unbelievable guy and the guys who lived in that generation will really miss him.
You are wearing black ribbons as a mark of respect?
Yeah, I think that is the right thing to do. It is the least we can do. It is going to be a tough day for the whole country so we will see how it goes.
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