Mandela Championship radiates nation's loss
Talk about apropos. How about the European Tour’s Nelson Mandela Championship being held the same week as memorial services for the iconic leader? The tournament is in its second year and is being staged in Durban, South Africa, about 300 miles southwest of Johannesburg, where ceremonies have been held for Mandela, the former South African president and Nobel laureate who died Dec. 5.
Although Mandela’s connection to sports was more with World Cup rugby and World Cup soccer, he appreciated golf and South Africa’s rich history in the game.
John Hahn, the former Kent State standout who is attempting to make his way in pro golf via the European Tour this year, felt the sense of loss as he prepared to play in this week’s tournament. “It’s a somber time for the nation,” Hahn said via text. “People seem to be carrying on with their lives, same as usual, but there is an eerie feeling of something missing.”
Hahn and his fellow competitors observed a one-minute moment of silence at a break during Wednesday’s pro-am, and he confirmed that it is an impactful time, almost as if he’s part of history.
Another American can commiserate because before he settled into a career as a top-echelon caddie. Jimmy Johnson was a professional player who spent 17 winters in South Africa. “When I started playing over there in 1979, Mandela was in prison,” Johnson said. “When I left (1994-95), he was president.”
Johnson’s interest at the time was strictly to earn a living playing professional golf and in those years earned many of the Sunshine Tour participants' spots on the international blacklist. The anti-apartheid movement was something Johnson experienced first-hand by playing in South Africa, where he became great friends with many of his competitors, notably Nick Price, for whom Johnson later caddied.
Johnson, who was in South Africa in 1991 when Mandela was released from prison after 27 years, had a great sense of the political landscape in those years. “The country would have erupted if it weren’t for Mandela,” Johnson said. “He was the glue; he was the bridge.”
Johnson finished eighth on the Sunshine Tour’s Order of Merit in 1993-94 – his best finish being a T-8 in the Zimbabwe Open – and experienced the nation’s joy when Mandela was elected its first black president.