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Els thanks Mandela after emotional British Open victory

Story highlights

  • Ernie Els dedicates British Open victory to former president Nelson Mandela
  • Els was first South African to win a major golf title in post-apartheid era
  • His win at Royal Lytham is popular at home and across the world
  • Els has raised millions of dollars for his autism charity, inspired by his son

When Ernie Els won the U.S. Open in 1994, he was the first South African to claim a major golf title in 16 years.

Perhaps more importantly, he was the first to win one since the end of apartheid and the start of the "Rainbow Nation" -- his victory at Pennsylvania's Oakmont Country Club came less than two month's after the country's historic elections in which Nelson Mandela was voted president.

So when Els won his fourth major crown on Sunday after Australian Adam Scott capitulated on the closing holes of the British Open, the 42-year-old knew who to thank.

"A lot of the Olympic theme this year has got President Mandela in it, so he's been very much in my thoughts," Els said of the celebrated former anti-apartheid activist, who turned 94 last week.

"Believe it or not, I was lying watching cricket (South Africa against England) and I was just kind of day-dreaming and that thought came through me in a split second.

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    "If I win, I told myself, I'd better thank President Mandela because I grew up in the era of the apartheid, and then changing into the democratic era President Mandela was right there.

    "Right after the change I was the first one to win a major, so there's a lot of significance there in my life. 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 sports people."

    Els has joined an elite group of golfers -- including Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Bobby Jones, Walter Hagen and Lee Trevino -- who have won two Opens on either side of the Atlantic.

    His earlier successes led the way for compatriots Retief Goosen, who won the U.S. Open in 2001 and 2004, Trevor Immelman (2008 Masters winner) and two players he has helped develop through his golf foundation -- Louis Oosthuizen (2010 British Open) and Charl Schwartzel (2011 Masters).

    Giving it back: Els' off-course passions

    Els' unexpected victory at Royal Lytham and St. Annes, coming 10 years since his 2002 British Open victory at Muirfield, has been hailed by his compatriots.

    "Thank you for lifting SA flag high to de world of golf. You are an inspiration to all South African kids," Jabu Likhele wrote on Els' Facebook page.

    Hugo Myburgh posted: "Truly an inspiration to every South African, that no matter what's happened over years of suffering and struggle can and has been overcome and a true smile reflects that!!!"

    Others paid tribute to Els' work with raising awareness of autism, a condition which afflicts his son Ben.

    "As a 4 times a year hacker of a golfer and a father of a 26 year old son with severe autism I want to say way to go Ernie winning the Open after all you and your family have been through what a triumph!" wrote Brad Doyle from Phoenix, Arizona.

    Son's autism gives golf ace Ernie Els a grand ambition

    Nine-year-old Ben Els was watching on television in London while his father conjured up an unlikely victory at the Lancashire links course in north-west England.

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    "I made a lot of putts with Ben in mind because I know Ben's watching," Els, who has raised millions towards building an autism research center, told reporters.

    "He loves when I hit golf balls -- he's always there. He comes with me. He loves the flight of the ball and the sound.

    "I know he was watching. He gets really excited and I wanted to keep him excited, so I made a lot of putts for him."

    Els was supposed to have headed straight to Canada for a PGA Tour event, but has delayed that so he can celebrate with Ben, wife Liezl and daughter Samantha.

    "Ben's coming through now nicely. He's a wonderful boy now and he's a bright boy, so we're going to have a lot of fun."

    Els has now won major titles in three different decades, but not along ago it appeared that the former world No. 1's days as a contender were over.

    He failed to qualify for this year's Masters after throwing away a winning position during a PGA Tour event in March, but he rebounded with a ninth-place finish at last month's U.S. Open as he was again in the title mix on the final day.

    "Not too many people win majors at my age, it means so much more, it feels so special," he told CNN.

    "You're almost blase in a way when you're young. It was like okay, you knew you were going to win and here we go. When you get older and you've gone through the mill a bit like I have, this is so special."

    Last year Els, known as the "Big Easy" for his languid playing style and relaxed manner, dropped out of the top-50 rankings for the first time since 1993.

    He has now moved back up to 15th, and paid tribute to his coach Claude Harmon -- the latest in a line of top instructors from that family, including his father Butch (who also worked with Els) and his namesake grandfather.

    "He's helped me immensely with my game, with confidence and so forth. I'm very grateful to Claude, he's one of many in that circle around me," Els said.

    "He's one of many I want to thank, but obviously Claude is right at the top of the list."