In the aftermath of this year’s World Cup, much has been made—and with good reason—about the racial harmony it inspired in South Africa and around the world. Suddenly, my native country of South Africa, which just decades ago appeared permanently divided by apartheid, was united by the excitement of the game and the sound of vuvuzelas buzzing like an army of unflappable mosquitoes.
Last month, on the greens of St. Andrews Golf Course in Scotland, South African sports fans witnessed a similarly unifying moment when Louis Oosthuizen, a previously unheralded golfer with an unpronounceable last name, joined the likes of Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, and Ernie Els to win the British Open, golf’s oldest tournament. And yet it wasn’t just Oosthuizen’s dominating victory—the fifth for South African golfers since 2001—that made this a transcendent moment. It was the sight of Oosthuizen hugging his friend and caddie, Zack Rasego, who is black, something that just decades ago would have repulsed some South Africans. It was hearing Oosthuizen at the press conference, having just won his first major tournament, wishing the old man, Nelson Mandela, a happy birthday and praising him for the “unbelievable” things he’s done for our nation.
South Africa is a small country of just 47 million people, where less than 5 percent of the population—mostly wealthy whites—play golf. Yet we have emerged as a powerhouse in the sport over the past 15 years, thanks to the heroic play of Els, Retief Goosen, and Trevor Immelman (and perhaps also because the weather here is perfectly suitable to walking the fairways year-round).
In coming years, we are only going to get better. Soccer is widely considered the sport for blacks in South Africa, rugby the sport of whites. But golf has the chance to become a sport for all South Africans, and we will be the better for it. Oosthuizen’s victory is a prime example. The son of a farmer, he received a scholarship with the Ernie Els & Fancourt Foundation in South Africa to learn to play the game at the highest level. Thanks to Els’s school and the likes of Johann Rupert’s South African Golf Development Board, thousands of South African children like Oosthuizen, who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford to play, are learning the game. The days of the country club are over, which means that just maybe the next great South African golfer to emerge with a smooth swing and an unpronounceable last name will also have dark skin.
Baker, a leading swing guru who has worked with five past world No. 1 golfers, is a friend and ambassador of the Laureus World Sports Academy (laureus.com).