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South Africa Hails Els' Victory At British Open
by Mike Cohen

CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) ? Ernie Els reclaimed his mantle as the golden boy of South African golf Monday after he squeaked home to victory in the British Open over the weekend.

Newspapers hailed Els' victory with banner headlines, President Thabo Mbeki called him Monday to congratulate him and radio talk shows were inundated with callers proclaiming him one of South Africa's greatest sportsmen.

"He was very focussed and really deserved to win," said Louis Martin, chief executive of the Sunshine Tour, South Africa's professional golfing circuit. "He won not playing his best game ... and I think he will win several more tournaments this year."

Els claimed his last major title in 1997 when he won the U.S. Open for the second time, and since then has been plagued by self doubt about his ability to perform under pressure.

While he remained one of South Africa's most popular sportsman, countryman Retief Goosen, who won last year's U.S. Open, was widely viewed as the golfer who would bring home the titles.

But Els' playoff victory against Frenchman Thomas Levet on Sunday, proved that the man known as the Big Easy for his laid-back demeanor and effortless swing is not finished yet.

"Relief as Els wins ... at last," read a headline in the Cape Times newspaper, while The Citizen newspaper proclaimed: "Els gets out of the woods," a reference to Tiger Woods, who has dominated professional golf over recent years.

Els' victory comes at a time when South Africa's sporting fans desperately needed a boost.

Last month the country's soccer team's exited the Soccer World Cup in the opening round after Paraguay squeaked through on goal difference, while the Springbok rugby side were thumped 40-21 in a Tri-Nations encounter against New Zealand's All Blacks at the weekend.

Els' win was a good thing "not just for golf but for sport in general," Martin said.

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