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Legendary Ernie

Ernie Els's place in South African history books as a sporting legend will never be in dispute. A fresh-faced Big Easy most notably burst onto the scene with victory at Oakmont in the 1994 US Open, and he has since added three further majors and a host of other trophies to his cabinet.

Some may argue that four majors - and a disappointing string of runner-up finishes in these showpieces - ranks as an underachievement for someone of such extraordinary talent.

But it's ultimately irrelevant in the context of his standing as a hero and role model. Els is as popular as he is laid-back, and it should come as no surprise that almost every young golfer, with metronomic consistency, states "Ernie" as the person they aspire to emulate.

After all, that iconic smile and endearing aura are aptly mirrored by his graceful golf swing. He has also managed to completely avoid courting any form of controversy for the best part of 20 years, and thus has managed to transcend the sport of golf. In his own way anyway!

But one side of Els that many might not be familiar with is that he is also a very generous philanthropist. In 1999, the Big Easy collaborated with the Fancourt Hotel and Country Estate to start the Ernie Els Golf Foundation - an organisation which provides young and talented golfers, usually of limited financial resources, with educational assistance and the opportunity to compete at the highest level.

In 2006, the Foundation officially joined forces with Fancourt and became known as the Ernie Els and Fancourt Foundation (EEFF). Those eligible are usually in high school, and the lucky candidates who are taken on board enjoy significant financial assistance towards golf and education until the age of 22.

And it hasn't taken long for the project to bear fruit. The most notable graduates of the Foundation include the likes of Branden Grace and George Coetzee, but a whole host of others are currently making their way through the ranks on the Sunshine Tour.

But, as the mission statement suggests, it is not only in golf where people have been able to make a success of themselves through the Foundation. The invaluable contribution towards education has been crucial to so many, and they have now emerged as tertiary educated businessmen.

One such individual is Michael Mgodeli. The 25-year-old, who hails from the township of Gugulethu, made a name for himself in the junior golf ranks, and, in 2003, piqued the interest of those at the Foundation. He ticked the boxes of financial need and golfing talent, but, like every other candidate, was forced to go through a trial process.

"I remember it like it was yesterday," Mgodeli said. "They called me and said I had to have a trial round at Stellenbosch against two other guys. I was in Grade 10 and a scratch handicap at the time, but was a bit out of form. Luckily I shot a 73 off the back tees and pipped the other two, and they later told me I was accepted into the Foundation."

He continued: "It really changed my life from the start. My dad scraped together every cent to put me through school and support my golf. But, from then on, Ernie covered all my schooling and golf costs, gave me clothes, and really provided me with opportunities I could only have dreamed of."

Yet despite such a promising CV in junior golf, Mgodeli's game didn't improve sufficiently to take on the life of a professional golfer. Instead he chose to focus on his career, and after completing a degree in Economics and Finance at the University of Cape Town - all fully funded by the EEFF - he now works as a financial consultant for a major corporate group in Johannesburg.

"Playing with all those unbelievably talented guys like George, Branden and Anton (Haig), I quickly realised how good you have to be to make it as a pro. Instead I chose to focus my efforts on education, and the guys at the Foundation supported me every step of the way. I can't thank them enough for all they did, it really is amazing," he concluded.

Many sportsmen put together charitable organisations, but are barely involved. They'll throw money towards it, but seldom be hands-on, and it often descends into little more than a self-serving marketing campaign for goodwill. But Mgodeli was quick to quash that idea in the case of Els, and was adamant that the Big Easy had nothing but passion for his organisation.

"Ernie often used to come up to George and pay us a surprise visit. He really took an interest in what each of us were up to, and often used to invite us for braais at his house in Herolds Bay. He's just such a good guy, and he made me feel like a friend of his."

The EEFF is just one of many charitable ventures in which Els is involved, and he recently began the Els for Autism Foundation. His son, Ben, was diagnosed with the disorder six years ago, and he invested considerable funds into the organisation which aims to find a cure, while also incorporating knowledge-based treatments.

The paradoxical quest for becoming an idol is that it innately should not be a quest. Respect and admiration are to be earned, but not sought after.

But Els is an example of someone who does the right things for the right reasons. His golfing achievements and likeable personality are, in themselves, enough to win us all over. But it is his charity foundations that are having massive impacts on the lives of so many, and enabling so many fine youngsters the chance to prosper in life. That is the hallmark of a hero, and why he truly is a South African legend.

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