Ernie Els, South African golfer, just won the British Open for the second time at the age of 42. It was a stunning collapse by Adam Scott, accompanied by steady play by Els, that got him the win, a decade after his last British Open win. But it is not the win itself that caught my attention here - it is Ernie Els's acceptance remarks in which he thanked President Mandela for all he has done for "our country", and how he expanded on that thought when asked about it at the press conference afterwards. I have long admired Els for his work for autism research and awareness in the wake of his own young son's autism, and for his consistently classy behavior (he first paid tribute to Adam Scott in his acceptance speech, saying he felt very badly for him and that Scott would win this championship in the future, he was sure). But it is the way he talked about Nelson Mandela that truly made me admire him today, a day when the ugly and tawdry side of sports is epitomized by the removal of the statue of Joe Paterno at Penn State.
I don't have a video of Els' remarks, but I will report them here to the best of my memory. First, in accepting the Open trophy (the fabled Claret Jug), he said, after talking about his family, that he had to thank President Mandela for all he has done to bring South Africa through a difficult period and make it the country it is now becoming. Then, in response to a question from a reporter about it in the press conference that followed, Els expanded at some length about the "intertwining" of his own life with President Mandela's work to bring democracy to South Africa. Els said he grew up in apartheid, and then was the first South African golfer to win a major after the change to democracy. He said President Mandela called him, and that he'd never forget it - that anyone who has a chance to meet him would understand what a great man he is (or words to that effect.) He talked about how important Mandela's efforts have been for sport in his country, and for giving many children a chance to play the game. He said he was watching cricket on tv this morning before his tee time, and that the thought just came into his head, that IF he won, he had to talk about Nelson Mandela and thank him for what he has meant to South Africa and to Els himself. Els said he would try to get back to SA to bring the Claret Jug on a visit to President Mandela and that he would love to see him again.
It made me feel better about this terrible weekend, to see a sporting figure pay such a tribute to the great Nelson Mandela - it was a hopeful note, and we don't get enough of them these days.