Columbus – Ernie Els looks at an Internationals Presidents Cup squad with five South Africans and marvels at the living legacy his foundation has given golf and his homeland.
The two-time US Open and two-time British Open winner helps young players in South Africa through his foundation. He sparked the careers of Branden Grace and 2010 British Open winner Louis Oosthuizen and helped inspire 2011 Masters winner Charl Schwartzel.
“It feels weird. It's hard to explain,” Els said. “Them going through the program. They were juniors and then amateurs, and we go against each other as professionals.
“Now we're playing on the same team together. It's a big deal. We helped, but they had the talent. That's why they are here.”
That foursome, together with South African Richard Sterne and Zimbabwe's Brendon de Jonge, give Africa half the 12-man roster and help unite a team of worldwide players against a favored American side led by world number one Tiger Woods and reigning British Open champion Phil Mickelson.
“These boys are quite lively,” Els said. “They remind me of myself when I was in my 20s.”
And the South Africans can learn from each other as well as Els.
“It's fantastic for us there are so many South Africans,” Schwartzel said. “It makes us feel a lot more like a team already. In the past there were a lot of different countries, and it was difficult to get everyone gelling together.”
They are also supported by South African billionaire businessman and golf superfan Johann Rupert, who is also a member at Muirfield Village, where the biennial showdown with the US squad will commence on Thursday.
“Bringing him into the team a little bit, I think that's a great gesture,” Els said. “He is one of the people who have golf running in his blood he's so passionate about it.”
“Most of the guys know him,” Oosthuizen said. “He's an unbelievable guy to be around.”
Els warns that his foundation has more young talent in the pipeline, set to make their mark on golf, including his nephew Reece.
“We got pretty lucky to get talent like that, and we've got more talent now in our foundation again,” Els said. “It's a work in progress. We're trying to show them through, keep it going.
“My nephew is coming through quite nicely. But I don't want to boost them too early.”
Perhaps not all of them can be major champions, but Oosthuizen and Schwartzel are, and Grace won four times last year in Europe.
“They have really laid a great foundation. They are great kids Ä well they're not kids anymore but you know what I mean.”
The new generation is enjoying the chance to play with the man they idolized long before his foundation work.
“He has got so much to share and he has been around so long. He's always good to get some advice,” Schwartzel said. “He was the guy we revered so it's always a pleasure having him around.”
Grace treasures the chance to play alongside Els.
“Definitely,” Grace said. “Ernie has been there the whole way. It means a lot for him as well seeing us here on the same team. He does great things for South Africa golf, for the kids.”
Sterne, at 32 older than those backed by Els, also enjoys the chance to play alongside the South African golf icon.
“South Africans have looked up to Ernie for many years,” Sterne said. “He was winning majors when we were 13 so it's quite something to be on the team with him. it's a real honor and a special occasion.”
Oosthuizen recalls the feeling of playing on the junior side backed by Els.
“Knowing you were representing him, playing under his name, his clothing, to us was like having your hero's shirt on,” Oosthuizen said. “It was just good fun.”
One thing Els notes is that despite the US leading 7-1-1 in the rivalry, there are seven rookies on the team and a host of young Africans who have not known the sting of so many defeats.
“We've got some youngsters who haven't been knocked around as much as some of us, and these boys want to change things,” Els said. “But it's not going to be easy.” – Sapa-AFP