In 2006 he merged his charity with a foundation spearheaded by Hasso Plattner, co-founder of software giant SAP and owner of Fancourt Golf Estate in South Africa, to form the Ernie Els & Fancourt Foundation. There are currently 13 boys and four girls in the program.
So far, 124 golfers have received membership. Els explained his inspiration for giving back was quite simple: He recognized his good fortune to come from a family with the resources to send him overseas to compete and find out how good he was.
“I’ve seen friends of mine who had as much talent as myself and they didn’t make it because they didn’t have the opportunity to test their game on a bigger stage,” Els said. Louis Oosthuizen, ranked No. 23 in the world, was the ninth member of Els’ foundation and Exhibit A for what Els hoped to achieve.
Oosthuizen said it would have been impossible for his father, a dairy farmer, to afford to take him all over the country to compete. “Ernie was the helping hand to be able to do it all,” Oosthuizen said.
When Oosthuizen won the 2010 British Open, his eyes watered when he publicly thanked Els for giving him his start. “I called Ernie right after Louis won and he was as happy as if he had won a major himself,” van Niekerk said.
But the truest measure of Oosthuizen’s gratitude may be the junior golf foundation he formed in 2009 in Mossel Bay, his hometown. Oosthuizen boasted that Christo Lamprecht of George, South Africa, one of the players he sponsors, qualified for the 12-man international team in the Junior Presidents Cup held last month at Plainfield Country Club in Edison, N.J. (So did Luca Filippi of Cape Town, who came from the Els foundation.)
Oosthuizen said he learned more than just his picture-perfect golf swing. Members regularly participated in life skills training, which included everything from how to conduct an interview with a reporter to which fork to use first at a five-course dinner. “We’re youngsters,” he said, “so what do we know.”
Charl Schwartzel of South Africa, who won the 2011 Masters, was inseparable from Oosthuizen when they were growing up. Schwartzel, ranked No. 32 in the world, never was a member of the Els foundation because he did not need financial support, but he often traveled with the team and learned from them.
He called Els a big-brother figure. “He was the guy when I came to America who took me in, played practice rounds with me. I even stayed at his home for almost two years. My first round at Augusta was with him. Whenever I have a question about golf and my career, I ask him,” Schwartzel said.
In 2006 Branden Grace, who grew up near Pretoria and developed his swing hitting balls on the family’s farm, became the 46th player to join the Els foundation. His father sawed an old 3-iron down to size and the family sheep dog used to retrieve the balls. He told his father he wished he had cut down a wedge for him instead.
“That 3-iron was hard to hit,” he said. But it was enough to raise his curiosity. In January 2012, Grace gained his first victory as a professional, the Joburg Open in South Africa, earning a spot in the Volvo Golf Champions the following week at Fancourt.
He ended up winning the event in a playoff over his South African idols, Retief Goosen, a two-time U.S. Open champion, and Els. Grace, ranked No. 42 in the world, is one of golf’s budding stars, having already won on the PGA Tour among 11 worldwide victories and he has five Top 6 finishes in major championships. And van Niekerk said to look out for another recent member, Christiaan Bezuidenhout, the 93rd player to join the Els foundation, who won his first Sunshine Tour title in October 2016.
The golf development program is not the only way Els has given back. He established the Els for Autism Foundation with his wife, Liezl, in 2009 shortly after their son, Ben, was diagnosed with autism. In December, Els will receive the 2017 Heisman Humanitarian Award for his continuing efforts in helping those with autism.
While the golf program can already tout several standout graduates, not everyone is destined to make it as a pro. Members also must invest time in developing secondary training for careers ranging from groundskeeping to managing a club. Van Niekerk spoke like a proud father of Lwazi Gqira, 23, who grew up in a shack in South Africa’s Mdantsane township near East London and will be a qualified welder by the end of the year.
“He’s a good golfer, but there’s no guarantee,” van Niekerk said. “If he doesn’t make it, I think he will be highly successful in the field of welding.”
Four years ago, the Els foundation shifted its focus from junior golf to elite amateur golfers 18 and older who have graduated from high school. It is designed to work with the South African Golf Development Board, which introduces the game to disadvantaged black golfers, a program backed by Johann Rupert, the billionaire chairman of Richemont, a luxury goods company.
“We handpick the ones we believe have a future in the game and assist in supporting them for another three, four, and in some cases, five years,” van Niekerk said.
James Kamte, 35, is the most successful of the black alumnus. He was the sixth student to join the Els foundation and participated for three years before turning pro in 2003. He won four times on the Sunshine Tour and also won the 2009 Asian Tour International in Thailand, but has not made the leap to golf’s top echelon.
Player, a nine-time major winner, said look no further than the impact Tiger Woods had on golf in the United States to see what a black champion could mean to South Africa. “When people around the world see a man of color as the best in the world, it motivates the next generation,” Player said. “If he is from South Africa, and the young children see him hoisting the Claret Jug or putting on the Green Jacket, the effect will be tremendous both from a sporting perspective as well as socially.”
Perhaps the next great South African golfer will take the first step on the day after a winner has been crowned at the Nedbank Golf Challenge.
That is when several members of the Els foundation will play at Gary Player Country Club under the same menacing tournament setup. Among them will be Thabiso Magwaza, who is one of four new members expected to begin training with the Els team in January.
“I want to show them it’s not just a dream,” Els said. “You show them where they can go. It can open their eyes quickly.”
And maybe, someday, a nation will be staying up late on Sunday nights again.
“It would be wonderful to get up on a Monday morning and feel tired like those days when Ernie was out there and at every single tournament he teed off he had a chance going into the final day,” van Niekerk said.