Todd Hartley: Forgiving Ernie
July 26, 2002
Everything I knew about South Africa as a child I learned from music, and none of it spoke well of the country.
There was Little Stevie Van Zant telling me that “nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, I ain’t gonna play Sun City,” which I came to learn was sort of a South African Las Vegas with black slaves and rich white folks shelling out millions of dollars to see acts just like Little Stevie. Man, what a sacrifice. I’m sure venues in Sun City were trying to book him all the time.
Then there was that other band with the sultry-voiced female singers imploring me to “Free, free, free Nelson Mandela.” Now, I’m all for justice when justice is due, but when sirens start singing to a man, he’s powerless to resist, so whoever this cat Nelson Mandela was, I wanted him out of prison.
And then there was that even more obscure band I saw late one night on TV with the singer who kept asking the musical question, “What’s the word?” Apparently, the word was “Johannesburg,” because that’s what the rest of the band would respond. Imagine my surprise. I always thought the bird was the word and that Johannesburg was a segregated city torn by violence and unrest.
As I grew up a bit I learned some of the musical traditions of South Africa through Paul Simon’s “Graceland” album, traditions like Elvis Presley, putting diamonds on the souls of your shoes, and calling people Al. Included amongst those other traditional tracks, however, was a song called “Homeless,” and to me it was just further evidence of the repression of blacks in South Africa.
As any good semi-liberal-when-it-serves-his-purposes would, I worked up a good hatred of South Africa and this thing called apartheid without knowing a damn thing about either one. And the way my loathing manifested itself was by making South Africans my least favorite golfers. (Sure, it was a pathetic gesture, but at least I wasn’t part of the problem.)
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Gary Player? Racist, for all I knew. (In fact, quite the opposite is true.) From where I was sitting, though, his black attire was just a way to rub it in that he was a privileged white man who likely had unpaid black people carrying his clubs, shining his shoes, mowing his fairways and making sure that the pomade in his hair was applied evenly.
Nick Price? Racist. And not just racist, but trying to sneak by on a technicality by claiming he’s from Zimbabwe. Look, you could live on a raft in the Congo River your whole life, but as far as I’m concerned, if you’re white and from Africa, you are South African, and thus racist. Sorry, Nick.
And then along comes this big Aryan-looking kid named Ernie Els, who just may be the best golfer ever out of South Africa. And very early on in his career apartheid was abolished, Mandela was not just freed but made president, and it became OK to play Sun City, even for big names like Little Stevie.
In truth, Els probably knew little about the politics of apartheid when he was young, and he was probably just as happy as anyone to see it die. And if you asked him, I’m sure he’d probably just like to be thought of as a magnificent golfer, and not some figurehead for a deceased government policy. But I couldn’t let him off the hook that easily.
I took umbrage with the fact that Els had the gall to win two U.S. Opens. How dare he win our national championship? We had officially done away with segregation nearly 30 years before his country, therefore we were much better people than he, and a rich, white American kid (this was before the reign of Tiger Woods began) who had likely honed his stroke at an all-white country club deserved the victory.
But all things fade with time, and as the spotlight on South Africa has dimmed, so too has my rancor toward things South African, including golfers. Player? A living legend. Price? Supposedly one of the nicest guys on the tour. Els? Quite simply one of the finest golfers on the planet. Nothing more, nothing less.
So I suppose it’s time for me to grow up and put my outdated biases aside and just say congratulations. Congratulations on your third major, Mr. Els. You are a fitting heir to the legacy of British Open champions at Muirfield, a legacy that includes names like Nicklaus and Watson and Faldo, even if you are South African.
And thank God you beat a Frenchman.
[Little Stevie rocks! Todd Hartley writes this column on Fridays! E-mail at email@example.com]