(CNN) -- When Ernie Els won the U.S. Open in 1994, he was the first South African to claim a major golf title in 16 years.
Perhaps more importantly, he was the first to win one since the end of apartheid and the start of the "Rainbow Nation" -- his victory at Pennsylvania's Oakmont Country Club came less than two month's after the country's historic elections in which Nelson Mandela was voted president.
So when Els won his fourth major crown on Sunday after Australian Adam Scott capitulated on the closing holes of the British Open, the 42-year-old knew who to thank.
"A lot of the Olympic theme this year has got President Mandela in it, so he's been very much in my thoughts," Els said of the celebrated former anti-apartheid activist, who turned 94 last week.
"Believe it or not, I was lying watching cricket (South Africa against England) and I was just kind of day-dreaming and that thought came through me in a split second.
"If I win, I told myself, I'd better thank President Mandela because I grew up in the era of the apartheid, and then changing into the democratic era President Mandela was right there.
"Right after the change I was the first one to win a major, so there's a lot of significance there in my life. 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."
Els has joined an elite group of golfers -- including Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Bobby Jones, Walter Hagen and Lee Trevino -- who have won two Opens on either side of the Atlantic.
His earlier successes led the way for compatriots Retief Goosen, who won the U.S. Open in 2001 and 2004, Trevor Immelman (2008 Masters winner) and two players he has helped develop through his golf foundation -- Louis Oosthuizen (2010 British Open) and Charl Schwartzel (2011 Masters).
Els' unexpected victory at Royal Lytham and St. Annes, coming 10 years since his 2002 British Open victory at Muirfield, has been hailed by his compatriots.
"Thank you for lifting SA flag high to de world of golf. You are an inspiration to all South African kids," Jabu Likhele wrote on Els' Facebook page.
Hugo Myburgh posted: "Truly an inspiration to every South African, that no matter what's happened over years of suffering and struggle can and has been overcome and a true smile reflects that!!!"
Others paid tribute to Els' work with raising awareness of autism, a condition which afflicts his son Ben.
"As a 4 times a year hacker of a golfer and a father of a 26 year old son with severe autism I want to say way to go Ernie winning the Open after all you and your family have been through what a triumph!" wrote Brad Doyle from Phoenix, Arizona.
Nine-year-old Ben Els was watching on television in London while his father conjured up an unlikely victory at the Lancashire links course in north-west England.
"I made a lot of putts with Ben in mind because I know Ben's watching," Els, who has raised millions towards building an autism research center, told reporters.
"He loves when I hit golf balls -- he's always there. He comes with me. He loves the flight of the ball and the sound.
"I know he was watching. He gets really excited and I wanted to keep him excited, so I made a lot of putts for him."