Sombre mood at Sun City, Mandela honoured

GERALD IMRAY
Last updated 02:21 07/12/2013
Ernie Els
Getty Images
QUIET RELECTION: Ernie Els observes a moment of silence to honour the death of Nelson Mandela before the resumption of the first round at Sun City.

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The birdie putt celebrations were muted and the crowd a little quiet today. The skies over Sun City fittingly grey.

Gary Player cried on a tee box before an early-morning round and Ernie Els remembered the photo he has of himself and Nelson Mandela on his desk back in Florida.

"It is going to be a tough day for the whole country," Els said.

A somber mood hung over South Africa's first major sporting event since Mandela's death as Sergio Garcia, wearing a black ribbon like the rest of the 30-man field, shot a 6-under 66 to lead after the weather-delayed first round of the Nedbank Golf Challenge. The players almost immediately set off again for their second rounds in an attempt to make up time lost to the weather.

But in the early morning they had stood with their caddies, some with caps removed, for a moment's silence before the first round restarted, having been halted halfway through for lightning yesterday. Flags drooped at half-mast around the Gary Player Country Club. A hooter sounded to start the brief moment of reflection on the life of the beloved anti-apartheid leader.

Former South African President Mandela died late Thursday aged 95.

One of South Africa's first sporting heroes under Mandela's presidency, four-time major winner Els walked out of the players' lounge a little after 6.30am local time to talk to reporters and share some of his precious memories of the time he spent with Mandela. Els said that since about 1996 and well into his old age, Mandela used to call the golfer every time he won a tournament.

"They were special times and the little time we had together was very special. He was just the most amazing person I have ever met," Els said.

He also recalled Mandela partially ignoring him on a long-haul flight because the statesman instead wanted to talk to and play with Els' young daughter.

"We were sitting up front and then Mr. Mandela came onto the plane last," Els said. "He was sitting in the front seat and he saw me and my daughter sitting next to me and all of a sudden he didn't really want to see me anymore, he wanted to talk to my daughter. He got Samantha to go up there and she sat on his lap and he spoke to her like she was his grandchild."

Player, South Africa's most successful golfer and whose career so often clashed with South Africa's years of apartheid, said he and three friends had prayed and then cried together before playing.

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"But it's also a day of celebration because he'd want us to celebrate," Player said. "And we've got to celebrate for what he actually gave this country."

- AP

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