The ties that have bound South Africa's two great champions

In his Open winner's speech Ernie Els paid tribute to Nelson Mandela. Here Paul Martin explains the basis of a unique relationship

When a very young Ernie Els stood barefoot on his father's snooker table with a cut-down putter, knocking little white balls into each corner pocket in turn, he says he imagined that each putt was to win a different major title.

Last weekend he rolled one in from 15ft for a birdie at the final hole of Lytham St Annes, a master-stroke that did indeed make him the champion.

After a frustrating 10 years in the major-less wilderness, he had captured his second Open title to add to his two US Open victories. And the "Big Easy" had the grace, and the political savvy, to pay public obeisance to the man who made all this possible: former president Nelson Mandela.

Conjuring up an emotion-charged image, Els offered to sit with the frail 94-year-old world icon and sip a celebratory drink together from the famous Claret Jug.

"I grew up in the era of apartheid and the changing into the democratic era, and President Mandela was right there," Els said in his post-victory remarks last Sunday night. "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 a sports people."

In the late Eighties, when Els was bursting on to the world golfing stage, sports boycotts that had already isolated cricket and rugby were threatening to spill over into individual events. Els could have ended up as a latter-day Zola Budd, hounded and distracted by acrimony.

Now 42, Els is only three years younger than the barefoot runner who became British overnight but was considered a target for anti-apartheid activists. His own country was threatened not just with pariah status but also with the possibility of escalating political violence.

Fortunately for Els, the product of a comfortable white privileged lifestyle – his father ran a very successful truck-hire company – his leap to international fame came in 1994, just a month after Mandela had become South Africa's first black president.

The country's new leader phoned Els when he won the US Open at Oakmont, a triumph seized on by Mandela as a harbinger of South African success and a striving for reconciliation in the Rainbow Nation. It helped Mandela formulate the concept of sport as a unifying factor. So beautifully depicted in the film Invictus, Mandela donned the once-hated green-and-gold Springbok jersey as South Africa won the Rugby World Cup in 1995 under the captaincy of another white Afrikaans-speaking South African, Francois Pienaar.

In some ways Els's career reflected the country's political upheavals. When he turned pro in 1989, F W de Klerk, who had once sworn there would never been a black president, became the county's last white leader.

Two years later, to everyone's amazement, De Klerk began repealing all the racist laws, and Els won his first tour event on the once whites-only South African Sunshine Tour. One black player who won an event in the 1980s had not been allowed into the clubhouse with his trophy.

Els was aware of political sensitivities and was advised to use a black caddy. He did so when playing in South Africa, but at majors he usually had his close white friend Ricky on the bag – as he was again last weekend. Gary Player, the legendary nine-time major winner, and Els's boyhood hero, had used a black caddy too – as did Louis Oosthuizen when he ran away with The Open at St Andrews in 2010 – on Mandela's 92nd birthday.

Some would dismiss all that as window-dressing. But for Els, golf is much more than a trudge around a course. He genuinely sees the game he loves as a force for good. His foundation for young underprivileged or simply talented golfing youngsters has produced a crop of potential successors.

While mentoring white and black youngsters has matured Els's political sensitivities, as has his admiration for Mandela, another factor has transformed his attitude to life: his son Ben, 10, has autism, a disability that affects more than one in a hundred people. Golf was suddenly a lower priority, which may explain his relatively lean times over the past decade.

A tender father, Els brought Ben to The Open and regularly lets him charge around excitedly on practice putting greens. To his credit, Els has battled with single-minded determination to overcome hurdles in setting up what is now a multi-million pound charity for autistic children, helping to bring attention to the condition.

He has always been a far more determined character than could be discerned simply by watching his relaxed, even lackadaisical, demeanour on the course. He is the product of total dedication. He often remembers the old Gary Player adage: the more you practise, the luckier you get.

As boys, he and his equally talented but less phlegmatic brother would be dropped off at the local golf course by their uncle or father early each Saturday and Sunday, only collected as the sun set.

But now the Big Easy has refocused on his golf. More titles are in his sights. In the large garden of the family home in the small town of Germiston, a clue as to Els's still-unfulfilled final ambition flutters gently in the breeze. His father built a single hole with a bunker for his two golf-mad sons. Hanging from the green's flagpole is a standard with two words emblazoned on it in red: The Masters.

Who is to say that the rejuvenated Big Easy cannot make this dream come true?