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Tiger Woods, golf world mourn the passing of Nelson Mandela

After meeting Nelson Mandela in 1998, Tiger Woods called it ‘An experience that I will never, ever forget.’

Warren Little

Tiger Woods was finishing up the opening round Thursday at his Northwestern Mutual World Challenge when word spread about the death of Nelson Mandela, the former president of South Africa who inspired Woods, South African Ernie Els, and millions of others throughout the world.

"It’s sad for everyone ... who’s been influenced by him," Woods told Golf Channel after his round about his reaction to the death of one of his heroes, whom he met for the first time in 1998. "It’s a sad day for many people around the world."

Woods said in July, before the British Open and on the occasion of Mandela’s 95th birthday, that the long-ago lunchtime gathering, with his father by his side, "still gives me chills to this day, thinking about it.

"A gentleman asked us to go into this side room over here and, ‘President Mandela will join you in a little bit,’" Woods recalled. "And we walked in the room and my dad and I were just kind of looking around. And I said, ‘Dad, do you feel that?’ And he says, ‘Yeah, it feels different in this room.’

"And it was just like a different energy in the room. We just looked at each other and just shrugged our shoulders ... and maybe, I'm guessing, probably 30 seconds later, I heard some movement behind me and it was President Mandela folding up the paper. And it was pretty amazing. The energy that he has, that he exudes, is unlike any person I've ever met. And it was an honor to meet him at his home. And that's an experience that I will never, ever forget."

Els, whose fortunes on the golf course paralleled those of the man who helped his country recover from the tragedy of apartheid, won his first major, the 1994 U.S. Open, shortly after Mandela became president of South Africa. The four-time major champion, who was the first from his country to win a grand slam event after Mandela's election, had the leader on his mind following his triumph at last year’s Open Championship.

“If I win, I told myself, I'd better thank President Mandela because I grew up in the era of the apartheid era, and then changing into the democratic era, and President Mandela was right there," Els told reporters. "And right after the change, I was the first one to win a major.

“And so there's a lot of significance there in my life, from the change from that and then President Mandela becoming president and me winning a golf tournament," Els noted. "So in a way we intertwined together in a crazy way. And I just felt he's been so important for us being where we are today as a nation and as sports people.”

Gary Player, once an ardent defender of apartheid whose views changed dramatically over his 78 years, was one of many in the golf world to take to Twitter to share their memories of the “Father of the South African Nation.”