GULLANE, United Kingdom (AFP) – It takes a lot to impress a young golfing supremo who has just won the US Masters, but Tiger Woods on Tuesday recalled how his first meeting with Nelson Mandela 15 years ago was an experience like no other.
"I went down there to play Sun City, and he invited us to his home. And my father and I went to have lunch with him. It still gives me chills to this day, thinking about it," Woods told journalists at Muirfield in Scotland, where the start of the British Open on Thursday coincides with Mandela's 95th birthday.
Woods became a poster boy for multiracial America in 1997 when, at just 21, he became the first black golfer to win a major, a feat all the more startling as he did it on a course that up until seven years previously had been off limits to African-Americans.
He described his private lunch the following year with Mandela, South Africa's anti-apartheid hero, as unforgettable.
"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," Woods said.
"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 honour to meet him at his home. And that's an experience that I will never, ever forget."
Mandela, who overcame 27 years in jail to become South Africa's first black president and bring an end to decades of whites-only rule, is confined to his Pretoria hospital bed on life-support as the world prepares to mark his birthday with a raft of celebrations and charity events.
Defending British Open champion and South African sporting legend Ernie Els, also paid tribute to Mandela at Muirfield and said it would be "wonderful" if a South African player could win this week and give his sports-mad nation a much-needed morale boost.
"Obviously sport has been a key factor in bringing South Africa together into a democratic place and state," Els said on Monday. "And President Mandela played such a big part in that also back in the early '90s, and the World Cup and soccer, African Nations Cup."
Els is one of 10 South Africans competing at Muirfield, along with Thomas Aiken, Richard Sterne, Tim Clark, George Coetzee, Charl Schwartzel, Branden Grace, Louis Oosthuizen, Justin Harding and Darryn Lloyd.