"It is going to be a tough day for the whole country," Els said.
A sombre mood hung over South Africa's first major sporting event since Mandela's death as Sergio Garcia, wearing a black ribbon like the rest of the 30-man field, shot a 6-under 66 to lead after the weather-delayed first round of the Nedbank Golf Challenge on Friday.
In the early morning, golfers stood, some with caps removed, for a moment's silence before the first round restarted after being halted because of lightning on Thursday. Flags dropped to half-staff around the Gary Player Country Club.
A hooter sounded to start the brief moment of reflection on the life of the beloved anti-apartheid leader, who died late Thursday at 95.
Els, one of South Africa's first sporting heroes under Mandela's presidency, walked out of the players' lounge a little after 6:30 a.m. to talk of the times he spent with the former president. Els said that since about 1996 and well into his old age, Mandela used to call the golfer every time he won a tournament.
"They were special times and the little time we had together was very special. He was just the most amazing person I have ever met," Els said.
He also recalled Mandela partially ignoring him on a long-haul flight because the statesman instead wanted to talk to and play with Els' young daughter.
"We were sitting up front and then Mr. Mandela came onto the plane last," Els said. "He was sitting in the front seat and he saw me and my daughter sitting next to me and all of a sudden he didn't really want to see me anymore, he wanted to talk to my daughter. He got Samantha to go up there and she sat on his lap and he spoke to her like she was his grandchild."
Player, a South African golfer whose career so often clashed with the country's years of apartheid, said he and three friends had prayed and then cried together before playing.
"But it's also a day of celebration because he'd want us to celebrate," Player said. "And we've got to celebrate for what he actually gave this country."