South Africa is well represented at this week's U.S. Open golf tournament here in the Washington area. Seven South Africans are in the field at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Maryland, including five players who have won major championships.
Of the five South Africans with major titles at the U.S. Open, Ernie Els has the proudest golfing pedigree. The 41-year-old from Johannesburg has won more than 60 tournaments around the world, and he's twice captured the U.S. Open trophy, including once in 1997 at the same Congressional course.
Earlier this year, the player nicknamed "The Big Easy" for his elegant, powerful swing, was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame. Els can take pride in that achievement, as well as for his Fancourt Foundation that helps identify young golfing talent in South Africa.
2010 British Open champion Louis Oosthuizen and this year's Masters champion Charl Schwartzel both improved their skills through Els' program. Els told reporters at Congressional this week that South Africa has an excellent developmental system that will continue to produce future stars.
South African golfer Ernie Els signs an autograph at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Maryland, June 15, 2011
"I think South Africa needs to take a lot of credit for that," said Els. "We've got great junior programs, great amateur programs, and it's been in place even when I was a junior, even before I was born it was in place. And it's been kept in place by really, really good people. Obviously, I had a bit of a hand in Louis [Oosthuizen] and Charl [Schwartzel], but again, they were born with the talent, they had the drive - inner drive within themselves. Even without our help, I'm sure they would have made it to where they are today. And it's because of things set in place at a very early stage in South Africa. We've got a great golfing history, and we're very proud of that, and we keep maturing that. And I think that's why you will keep on seeing youngsters coming through from South Africa."
Louis Oosthuizen was 14 years old when Ernie Els won the 1997 U.S. Open at Congressional.
"At that stage Ernie was every young kid in South Africa's idol, and I think he still is," recalled Oosthuizen. "I just remember what it did to us as juniors - me and Charl - playing for South Africa at that time as juniors. And we wanted to be like Ernie. Before I went into his foundation, he was my golfing hero. And just to go into his foundation then at the end just topped everything off. It was such a great opportunity getting to know him better, and he's just a great guy. I think there are still a lot of youngsters who want to be like Ernie."
One year after Ernie Els won the U.S. Open title in 1997, he got married and now has two children. Since his son Ben was diagnosed with autism at age 5 in 2008, Els and his wife have been active in charities devoted to that condition.
"You know, I wouldn't say it's ideal to have autism touch your life, but it is what it is, and we've got a great boy in Ben," Els noted. "He's here this week, you know, and we're dealing with it. We've found that it helps us to really be involved. And we've thrown a lot of our weight into our foundation, Els for Autism, and we've got a lot of work to do, but we're moving in the right direction, trying to better our lives and other families' lives. It's a tough thing to deal with. I mean, every week I play, I have at least a dozen people come up to me talking about autism, and how they should deal with it. And then we talk about similarities between our families. It's kind of a weird situation, but you deal with it."
The two other South Africans who have major titles and are competing at this U.S. Open are 2008 Masters champion Trevor Immelman and Retief Goosen, who won the U.S. Open in 2001 and 2004. Oosthuizen says they are all part of a very competitive South African sporting culture.
"South Africa is a big sporting country," added Oosthuizen. "We've got rugby, cricket, football, golf, tennis, you've got everything. I think it's just a bit in our blood, really, loving to be in a situation where you can win."
The other two South Africans playing at the U.S. Open are Rory Sabbatini, who was ranked as high as number 8 in the world in 2007, and Christo Greyling, who is making his debut in the event at age 28.