BLAIR ATHOLL, South Africa — Charl Schwartzel’s new house overlooks the rolling hills of Gary Player’s family estate. That is about as far as the connection goes between two South Africans who won Masters Tournaments 50 years apart.
For Schwartzel and the rising generation of South African golfers, the nation’s greatest champion was more legend than muse.
“Gary was too far in front of my time,” said Schwartzel, who was born six years after Player won his final major at the 1978 Masters. “We just heard of what he did and we just see it on way-back footages. But I never saw him hit a shot in his prime. Never. I didn’t even know what he actually swung the club like. I’ve just seen what he did – it’s almost unbelievable how many times he won. It’s almost too unreal.”
Schwartzel represents a changing of the guard in South African golf. Like the modern American pros who look to Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson for career inspiration instead of Jack Nicklaus, Schwartzel and his peers look to a more recent vintage of major champions: Ernie Els, Nick Price and Retief Goosen.
“Gary was Ernie’s inspiration,” Schwartzel said of the 42-year-old Els, who has been a significant supporter of Schwartzel. “I respect what Gary did. If not for him, South African golf would not have been put on the map as it was. But Ernie, Retief and Nick Price were the three guys I used to watch. Those three were my idols.”
Els has waxed on about the profound effect watching Player’s victory at the 1978 Masters had on his own career. Schwartzel’s view of golf goes only as far back as the seminal season of 1994 – the year Els (U.S. Open) and Price (British Open and PGA) swept the last three majors of the year in the two months before Schwartzel’s 10th birthday.
“It’s a great inspiration,” he said.
Price, Els and Goosen won eight majors between them and contended in many others during the years when players such as Schwartzel and Louis Oosthuizen were learning the game and eventually playing for the South African junior team.
“At that stage Ernie was every young kid in South Africa’s idol, and I think he still is,” Oosthuizen said. “But I just remember what it did to us as juniors, me and Charl playing for South Africa at that time. And just, we wanted to be like Ernie.”
Schwartzel believes he’s drawn inspiration from different elements of all three major champions.
“Anyone who is your idol, you’ll always try to do similar to something they did,” he said. “If you look at how they are and who they are, you can almost see why they did what they did.”
Schwartzel breaks down the elements of each that have influenced him.
“Ernie is probably the biggest influence,” he said. “I love the way he swings the club. The rhythm just looks so good. I learn a lot from looking at swings. I just need to look for awhile and I can pick it up. I feel the way his rhythm and the way he chips has been the most helpful to me. I still today, if I’m a bit off, I look at him and his chipping and I find it straight away.
“A guy like Nick Price is so enthusiastic and such a nice guy. He’s never arrogant. Arrogance doesn’t get you far. He works so hard and he loved it. You can see why he won so many times. All that is inspiration, and I see a lot of that in myself. My dad and I used to study his tapes with (David) Leadbetter. I still today do a lot of the drills.
“I look at Retief, and a lot of people don’t know him very well. On the course he comes across as very quiet and no emotion. But he’s actually a very funny guy and very talkative. Sometimes I think the way he handles the situations is very good. In those situations, I like to have a little bit of expression. In those situations, sometimes those expressions are not good and you can lose your head a little bit. He never changes. I wonder how strong his mind’s got to be to do that.”
Oosthuizen was a member of the Ernie Els Foundation, which helps underprivileged children in South Africa who can’t afford to play golf.
“Before I went into his foundation, he was my golfing hero,” Oosthuizen said. “And just to go into his foundation then at the end just topped everything off. It was such a great opportunity getting to know him better, and what he still means to me playing professionally. He’s just a great guy. I think there’s still a lot of youngsters that want to be like Ernie.”
Schwartzel is regarded as an affiliated member, though he never received clubs, balls and travel expenses from the foundation.
He first met Els when he was 8. His father, who once partnered with Els in a tournament match, introduced them.
“I never spent time with him until I became a pro, but Ernie in my professional career has helped me immensely,” Schwartzel said. “Both he and Leizl (Els’ wife), they’ve been so good to me. I can ask him anything and he would tell me what he thinks. He lets me stay in his house and fly with him sometimes. He’s been amazing.”
Eventually, Schwartzel, Oosthuizen and Trevor Immelman will be the major champions South African golfers look up to.
“We run in 15-year cycles,” said five-time Champions Tour winner Simon Hobday, a former U.S. Senior Open champion. “You had Bobby Locke and then 15 years after that you had Harold Henning and Player, and then 15 years you had Bobby Cole and (Dale) Hayes and then (Mark) McNulty and Price and then Ernie and Retief. The next lot is about to arrive. The next wave is coming.”