With four Major Championship titles each you would expect a healthy amount of respect between Rory McIlroy and Ernie Els but for the Northern Irishman it is more a case of puppy love.
McIlroy had just turned five years old when Els won his first Major at the 1994 US Open and the South African great had two more of the sport's biggest prizes on his mantelpiece before the pair teed it up together competitively for the first time in 2008.
The two have since developed a great friendship and McIlroy was urged to play at this week's BMW SA Open hosted by City of Ekurhuleni by tournament host Els after the 47 year old played the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open Hosted by the Rory Foundation in 2015.
While the two are very much peers today, McIlroy - like many golfers of his generation - grew up looking up to Els and even named his first dog after the 28-time European Tour winner, whose full name is Theodore Ernest Els.
While the old saying goes that you should never meet your heroes, that has not been the case for McIlroy, who has been as impressed with Els off the course as on it in the last nine years.
"I first played with Ernie at the Singapore Open in 2008 and my caddie JP caddied for Ernie before me so we have always had a decent relationship," he said.
"Ernie was the first big, big name I had played with as a pro. I was nervous but I remember teeing off the tenth tee and I hit three wood past his driver and I thought ‘this is alright!’.
"I always remember that and also the fact that Ernie lost to Jeev (Milkha Singh) in a play-off that week and we were part of the same management company so we went out that night for dinner and a few drinks and had a great time.
"That was the beginning of the relationship and it’s kind of continued from there. I have always been a huge fan of his game but I am a bigger fan of the man and to have been able to get to know him and Liezl and the kids over the past few years in Florida has been great.
"Anything I can do to help Ernie I always will. I actually named my first dog after Ernie – I called him Theo. It’s been a good relationship."
I have always been a huge fan of his game but I am a bigger fan of the man - Rory McIlroy
One of Els' off-course passions is his Els for Autism foundation and in 2015 it opened a Centre of Excellence in Florida which continues to expand.
Els and wife Liezl began the foundation after their son Ben was diagnosed with the condition and McIlroy is delighted to do anything he can to support the foundation's work.
"I am fully aware of everything that Ernie is doing with Els for Autism," he said.
"I know Ben very well and the whole family well because we live so close to each other in Florida.
"The work that Ernie does and the school they are building is absolutely incredible and for him to come and help my foundation and then to be able to repay the favour is something I am more than happy and actually honoured to do."
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