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South Africans producing major talent like never before

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Johann Rupert was somewhere in the Greek Isles when I heard his voice for the first time.

I’d sent him an email after Louis Oosthuizen’s runner-up finish at the Masters, looking for context in what has become a renaissance in South African golf.

Rupert is the chairman of the South Africa-based Sunshine Tour. He has known Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel since they were teenagers. When Ernie Els was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame last year, Rupert presented him.

Rupert picked up his phone. I could tell instantly that he appreciated my interest in his homeland.

“I really think you should come down and have a look at how people can produce kids that are hungry enough to win major championships,” Rupert said. “Unless you visit with us, you wouldn’t understand.”

Then, after a brief discussion of Louis and all the rest, Rupert said something else: “There are more guys coming.”

I thought about Rupert on Sunday when 24-year-old South African Branden Grace was walking the Old Course at St. Andrews on the way to his fourth victory on the European Tour in the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship. “Look at that swing,” I thought. “Great balance.”

What was it that Rupert had said?

“There are more guys coming.”

It has been a remarkable run for South African golf and it is poised to continue. The United States has deeper talent and Northern Ireland has the best player in golf (plus its own spate of major winners) but South Africa’s pipeline is humming with sweet-swinging, long-hitting prodigies.

But why South Africa?

“One thing about South Africa is their amateurs play a full year in great weather,” said Pete Cowen, who teaches Oosthuizen. “In Europe, amateur golf is six months.”

But weather is only one factor. Why do Ernie, Louis and Charl, for example, have swings that are the envy of golf?

“Mr. Hogan said you dig it out of the dirt,” Rupert explained.

Asked about the aesthetics of his swing, Oosthuizen said he really didn’t know, though he offered that growing up and playing all over South Africa made him confident that his game could travel.

“Obviously, Louis has talent that allows him to do what you see there,” Cowen said. “He has put in a lot of hard work in it, getting more stability in his lower body and stability at the top of the swing. He is the complete picture of piecing a swing together. It’s taken him a long time to get to that.”

Even beyond technique and instruction one of the country’s greatest assets could be its mentoring. The kinship between generations of South African players is as strong as it is in anywhere and it comes in forms both large and small.

On the Saturday evening of the 2008 Masters, Trevor Immelman received a voicemail message from South African legend Gary Player, telling Immelman that he believed in him and that he needed to believe in himself to win a green jacket.

“And he told me I’ve got to keep my head a little quieter when I putt,” Immelman said back then with a chuckle. “He said I’m just peeking too soon.”

After winning the Masters the next day, Immelman told the story of meeting Player when he was 5 years old. He remembered Player picking him and placing him on his shoulders.

In recent years, Els has picked up Player’s mantle, serving as a mentor and inspiration to the generation following him. His Ernie Els & Fancourt Foundation has become a conveyer belt for South African golfing talent.

Els remembers hearing about Oosthuizen when he was a teenager, a kid “playing in a dust bowl of a golf course and shooting low.”

Oosthuizen applied and was accepted to the foundation, removing a large financial burden from his parents and setting into motion a career that has an Open Championship and Masters runner-up already. (Grace also came through Els’ foundation).

Els takes great pride in his foundation and the players who come through, so much so that he can be tough on his protégés when necessary.

When Els and Oosthuizen were in the field at the Byron Nelson Championship, Els freely shared what kind of advice he gives to Oosthuizen, including the occasional kick in the pants. “I’d like to see him get a little more fire,” Els said. “He has to be mentally strong and have a purpose.”

Two months later, Els won his fourth major championship at Lytham. Last weekend, Grace won his fourth European Tour title. There are more guys coming.