A year later Els continues fight against autism

By Associated PressMarch 2, 2009, 5:00 pm
2007 Honda ClassicPALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. ' For Ernie Els, last year's Honda Classic was filled with significance.
 
It wasn't a major. Didn't come after some epic duel with Tiger Woods. Lacked that dramatic moment on the 18th green where a putt would decide the tournament. In fact, Els learned he won while standing on the driving range, prepping for a playoff that never happened.
 
But for Els, few wins mattered more.
 
Ernie and Ben Els
Ernie Els and his son, Ben. (Getty Images)
Prevailing at the Honda gave Els more than a $990,000 winner's check and his first PGA Tour victory since 2004. It provided the platform he'd long sought to finally reveal his family is one of many touched by autism, a brain disorder found in about one of every 150 children that hinders their ability to communicate and interact socially.
 
Els' son, Ben, is a healthy 6-year-old ' who just happens to be autistic.
 
So his dad's bag bore an 'Autism Speaks' logo that week, and days after winning at PGA National, Els started speaking about it as well.
 
'It was good timing,' Els said. 'It also had gotten to the stage where you've either got to talk about what's happened to Ben or you're just not. He was so in the public eye, especially not just in the U.S., but also worldwide. When you travel with Ben, you can really start seeing there's something going on. I didn't want to feel like we're hiding anything.'
 
If that ever was the case, it isn't anymore.
 
Els ' who'll defend his title at the Honda Classic this coming week ' and his family are now at the front of fundraising and awareness efforts.
 
Els' wine label helped sponsor a golf outing that raised more than $300,000 last summer for autism research, and on March 23 at PGA National, he will host a pro-am featuring Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman, Justin Rose, Raymond Floyd, Ian Poulter, Luke Donald and Tim Clark -- who ousted Woods from the Accenture Match Play Championship on Thursday.
 
In the beginning, Els was hoping to lure 18 teams and wondered if he'd draw that many.
 
He wound up having to stop taking entries when the field got to 22 foursomes, even turning some pros down.
 
'We've got our foundation up and running now and we can really start getting involved with finding a cure,' Els said.
 
'Basically, that's what we want to do.'

Keeping Ben's condition silent pained Els for years.
 
At times, he wasn't the same Big Easy on the golf course, letting emotions get the better of him in certain situations, a far cry from his typical demeanor.
 
It was a strain at home, too, as it is for most families dealing with autism.
 
But Els counts himself lucky: His family is moving forward, not letting anger and frustration override everyday life.
 
'You can't help but feel for this kid, Ben,' Els said. 'He's a healthy kid and everything about him is perfect. He's just not going to be a, call it normal, kid one day. You're not going to play the same sport and he's not going to do the same things as you envisioned. That's the hard part.'
 
In many ways, 2008 was a year of major changes for Els' family.
 
After seeing one too many snowflakes in London, where the South African made his year-round base for some time, Els packed the family up and moved to South Florida, buying a home in Palm Beach County. Off-season training there is easier, many of Els' friends live in the area and there's no shortage of places to play golf.
 
And of course, his son's condition weighed heavily on the decision to move, with Els saying he finds U.S. facilities involved in autism research 'so far more advanced in treating the condition or finding a cure for the condition.'
 
That helped make the decision to uproot the family seem rather easy.
 
'I don't want to say the biggest factor, but he was the most influential factor for us to come here,' Els said.
 
He also wanted to make sure his daughter Samantha, now 9, would be comfortable. She's adjusted perfectly, Els said, after finding a soccer team, new friends, a good school and going horseback riding in her spare time.
 
Liezl Els, the player's wife, also was fine with the move ' and with her husband's choice to reveal Ben's story. She has immersed herself in research about autism, even more so than when Ben was first diagnosed.
 
'What we learned was startling,' she said in a public service announcement taped after the family revealed their situation.
 
One of the things the Elses have learned is this: There's no shortage of folks who want to help.
 
Admittedly, starting a new philanthropic quest in these difficult economic times across the globe is not easy. But Els is already seeing good things happen, and with the help of some power brokers, his quest is off to a flying start.
 
'Most of the people we've asked are guys who run major corporations or are friends of mine or guys I play golf with,' said Marvin Shanken, who is organizing Els' March 23 event. 'I want to say 90 percent of the people I went to said yes on the phone.'
 
Shanken is the publisher of Cigar Aficionado and Wine Spectator magazines, and a rabid golfer who only found the game seven years ago. He's since gotten to play with Woods in a pro-am, has become close friends with Els, even playing with him at PGA National before last year's Honda Classic.
 
Shanken is thrilled to see Els bring light to the autism fight.
 
'I was so proud,' Shanken said. 'It showed such courage and compassion for others that he was going to make a difference. That is singularly what drove me to come to him with the idea for this event. I wanted to help. I just want to be there for him and for all the other parents who face the same challenges.'
 
Everywhere Els goes now, he hears questions about autism.
 
Fellow players often stop him and inquire how things are going. Some new fathers and fathers-to-be on the various worldwide tours have sought Els' counsel. Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino, who has an autistic child and whose foundation has raised more than $20 million to fight the condition, invited Els to tour the research center in Miami that bears his name.
 
Golf is still Els' passion.
 
He's just made room to add another one.
 
'Since I've come out with Ben's condition, it's been like wildfire, just with people coming out and talking about it,' Els said. 'It's amazing how big a problem it is. You don't know it until you get involved.'
 
Related Links:
  • Lerner: Els opens up about autistic son
  • Full Coverage ' Honda Classic
  • LPGA awards: Ryu, S.H. Park tie for POY

    By Randall MellNovember 20, 2017, 1:56 am

    NAPLES, Fla. – In the end, the CME Group Tour Championship played out a lot like the entire 2017 season did.

    Parity reigned.

    Nobody dominated the game’s big season-ending awards, though Lexi Thompson and Sung Hyun Park came close.

    Thompson walked away with the CME Globe’s $1 million jackpot and the Vare Trophy for low scoring average. If she had made that last 2-foot putt at the 72nd hole Sunday, she might also have walked away with the Rolex Player of the Year Award and the Rolex world No. 1 ranking.

    Park shared the Rolex Player of the Year Award with So Yeon Ryu. By doing so, Park joined Nancy Lopez as the only players in LPGA history to win the Player of the Year and Rookie of the Year titles in the same season. Lopez did it in 1978. Park also won the LPGA money-winning title.

    Here’s a summary of the big prizes:

    Rolex Player of the Year
    Ryu and Park both ended up with 162 points in the points-based competition. Park started the week five points behind Ryu but made the up the difference with the five points she won for tying for sixth.

    It marks the first time the award has been shared since its inception in 1966.

    Ryu and Park join Inbee Park as the only South Koreans to win the award. Park won it in 2013.


    Vare Trophy
    Thompson won the award with a scoring average of 69.114. Sung Hyun Park finished second at 69.247. Park needed to finish at least nine shots ahead of Thompson at the CME Group Tour Championship to win the trophy.

    There were a record 12 players with scoring averages under 70.0 this year, besting the previous record of five, set last year.


    CME Globe $1 million prize
    Thompson entered the week first in the CME points reset, but it played out as a two-woman race on the final day. Park needed to finish ahead of Thompson in the CME Group Tour Championship to overtake her for the big money haul. Thompson tied for second in the tournament while Park tied for sixth.

    By winning the CME Group Tour Championship, Jutanugarn had a shot at the $1 million, but she needed Park to finish the tournament eighth or worse and Thompson to finish ninth or worse.


    LPGA money-winning title
    Park claimed the title with $2,335,883 in earnings. Ryu was second, with $1,981,593 in earnings.

    The tour saw a tour-record 17 players win $1 million or more this season, two more than did so last year.

    Ryu came into the week as the only player who could pass Park for the title, but Ryu needed to win to do so.


    Rolex world No. 1 ranking
    The top ranking was up for grabs at CME, with No. 1 Feng, No. 2 Sung Hyun Park and No. 3 So Yeon Ryu all within three hundredths of a ranking point. Even No. 4 Lexi Thompson had a chance to grab the top spot if she won, but in the end nobody could overtake Feng. Her reign will extend to a second straight week.


    Rolex Rookie of the Year
    Park ran away with the award with her U.S. Women’s Open and Canadian Pacific Women’s Open victories among her 11 top-10 finishes. She had the award locked up long before she arrived for the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship.

    Ko ends first winless season with T-16 at CME

    By Randall MellNovember 20, 2017, 1:07 am

    NAPLES, Fla. – Lydia Ko carved a hybrid 3-iron to 15 feet and ended the most intensely scrutinized year of her young career with a birdie Sunday at the CME Group Tour Championship.

    “Nice to finish the season on a high note,” Ko said after posting a 3-under-par 69, good for a tie for 16th. “Obviously, not a top-10 finish, but I played really solid. I feel like I finished the season off pretty strong.”

    Ko posted two second-place finishes, a third-place finish and a tie for fifth in her last eight starts.

    “Ever since Indy [in early September], I played really good and put myself in good positions,” Ko said. “I felt like the confidence factor was definitely higher than during the middle of the year. I had some opportunities, looks for wins.”

    Sunday marked the end of Ko’s first winless season since she began playing LPGA events at 15 years old.

    Let the record show, she left with a smile, eager to travel to South Korea to spend the next month with family after playing a charity event in Bradenton, Fla., on Monday.


    CME Group Tour Championship: Articles, photos and videos

    Full-field scores from the CME Group Tour Championship


    Much was made of Ko beginning the year with sweeping changes, with new equipment (PXG), a new coach (Gary Gilchrist) and a new caddie (Peter Godfrey).

    In the final summary, it wasn’t a Ko-like year, not by the crazy high standards she has set.

    She saw her run of 85 consecutive weeks at No. 1 end in June. She arrived in Naples holding on to the No. 8 ranking. She ends the year 13th on the LPGA money list with $1,177,450 in earnings. It’s the first time she hasn’t finished among the top three in money in her four full years on tour. She did log 11 top-10 finishes overall, three second-place finishes.

    How did she evaluate her season?

    “I feel like it was a better year than everyone else thinks, like `Lydia is in a slump,’” Ko said. “I feel like I played solid.

    “It's a season that, obviously, I learned a lot from ... the mental aspect of saying, `Hey, get over the bads and kind of move on.’”

    Ko said she learned a lot watching Stacy Lewis deal with her run of second-place finishes after winning so much.

    “Winning a championship is a huge deal, but, sometimes, it's overrated when you haven't won,” Ko said. “Like, you're still playing well, but just haven't won. I kind of feel like it's been that kind of year.

    “I think everybody has little ups and downs.”

    For Ariya, Lexi, finish was fabulous, frustrating

    By Randall MellNovember 20, 2017, 12:47 am

    NAPLES, Fla. – Lexi Thompson can take a punch.

    You have to give her that.

    So can Ariya Jutanugarn, who beat Thompson in the gut-wrenching conclusion to the CME Group Tour Championship Sunday at Tiburon Golf Club.

    They both distinguished themselves overcoming adversity this season.

    The problem for Thompson now is that she’ll have to wait two months to show her resolve again. She will go into the long offseason with the memory of missing a 2-foot putt for par that could have won her the championship, her first Rolex Player of the Year Award and her first Rolex world No. 1 ranking.

    Thompson took home the CME Globe $1 million jackpot and Vare Trophy for low scoring as nice consolation prizes, but the Sunday finish was a lot like her season.

    It was so close to being spectacular.

    She was so close to dominating this year.

    That last 2-foot putt Sunday would have put Thompson in the clubhouse at 15 under, with a one-shot lead, which would have added so much more pressure to Jutanugarn as she closed out.

    Instead of needing to birdie the final two holes to force a playoff, Jutanugarn only needed to birdie one of them to assure extra holes. She went birdie-birdie anyway.

    Thompson was on the practice putting green when she heard the day’s last roar, when Jutanugarn rolled in a 15-foot birdie to beat her.

    “It wasn’t the way I wanted to end it,” Thompson said of the short miss. “I don’t really know what happened there. It just happens. I guess it’s golf.”


    CME Group Tour Championship: Articles, photos and videos

    Full-field scores from the CME Group Tour Championship


    Thompson was asked if the weight of everything at stake affected her.

    “No, honestly, I wasn’t thinking about it,” she said. “I putted great the whole day. I guess, maybe, there was just a little bit of adrenaline.

    “We all go through situations we don’t like sometimes.”

    Thompson endured more than she wanted this year.

    She won twice, but there were six second-place finishes, including Sunday’s. There were three losses in playoffs.

    There was the heart-wrenching blow at the ANA Inspiration, the season’s first major, when she looked as if she were going to run away with the title before getting blindsided by a four-shot penalty in the final round. There were two shots when a viewer email led to a penalty for mismarking her ball on a green in the third round, and two more shots for signing an incorrect scorecard.

    Thompson was in tears finishing that Sunday at Mission Hills, but she won a legion of new fans in the way she fought back before losing in a playoff to So Yeon Ryu.

    There was more heartache later in the spring, when Thompson’s mother, Judy, was diagnosed with uterine cancer, requiring surgery to remove a tumor and then radiation.

    For Thompson fans, Sunday’s missed 2-foot putt was a cruel final blow to the year.

    This time, there were no tears from Lexi afterward.

    “Just going through what I have this whole year, and seeing how strong I am, and how I got through it all and still won two tournaments, got six seconds . . . it didn’t stop me,” Thompson said. “This won’t either.”

    After Thompson bounced back from the ANA loss to win the Kingsmill Invitational in May, she acknowledged how the loss motivated her.

    “I'm as determined as any other person out here,” Thompson said. “We all want to win. I have a little bit more drive now.”

    She was so close this year to elevating herself as the one true rock star in the women’s game. She will have a long offseason to turn Sunday’s disappointment into yet more fuel to get there.

    Thompson will prepare for next year knowing Jutanugarn may be ramping her game back up to dominante, too.

    Jutanugarn looked as if she were going to become a rock star after winning five times last year to claim the Rolex Player of the Year Award and then rising to No. 1 with a victory at the Manulife Classic back in May, but it didn’t happen.

    Jutanugarn struggled through a summer-long slump.

    She failed to make a cut in six of seven starts. It wasn’t as miserable a slump as she endured two years ago, when she missed 10 consecutive cuts, but it was troubling.

    “Even though I played so badly the last few months, I learned a lot,” Jutanugarn said. “I’m growing up a lot, and I’m really ready to have some fun next year.”

    Her surgically repaired shoulder was bothering her again, but it was more than that.

    “This time it was more about becoming No. 1,” said Gary Gilchrist, her coach. “I think all of the responsibilities got to her.”

    Gilchrist said he could see a different focus in Jutanugarn this week. He credited Vision 54s Pia Nilsson and Lynn Marriott for helping her deal with all the pressure that has mounted with her growing status.

    “It’s been a long process,” Nilsson said. “She’s felt too much expectation from everybody else, where she loses focus on what she can do.”

    Marriott said they asked Jutanugarn to come up with something she wanted to do to make herself proud this week, instead of worrying about what would please everyone else.

    It worked.

    “I told my caddie, Les [Luark], that thinking about the No. 1 ranking wasn’t going to help me be a better golfer,” Jutanugarn said. “I wanted people to say, `Oh this girl, she’s really happy.’ That was my goal, to have fun.”

    Late Sunday, hoisting the trophy, Jutanugarn looked like she was having a lot of fun.

    Thomas vs. Rose could be Ryder Cup highlight

    By Rex HoggardNovember 19, 2017, 11:40 pm

    ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. – For those still digesting the end of 2017 – the European Tour did, after all, just wrap up its season in Dubai on Sunday – consider that the PGA Tour is already nearly one-fifth of the way into a new edition.

    The Tour has already crowned eight champions as the game banks into the winter break, and there are some interesting trends that have emerged from the fall.

    Dueling Justins: While Justin Thomas picked up where he left off last season, winning the inaugural CJ Cup in October just three weeks after claiming the FedExCup and wrapping up Player of the Year honors; Justin Rose seems poised to challenge for next year’s low Justin honors.

    The Englishman hasn’t finished outside the top 10 since August and won back-to-back starts (WGC-HSBC Champions and Turkish Airlines Open) before closing his year with a tie for fourth place in Dubai.

    Note to U.S. Ryder Cup captain Jim Furyk: Justin v. Justin next September in Paris could be fun.

    Youth served. Just in case anyone was thinking the pendulum might be swinging back in the direction of experience over youthful exuberance – 41-year-old Pat Perez did put the veterans on the board this season with his victory at the CIMB Classic – Patrick Cantlay solidified his spot as genuine phenom.

    Following an injury-plagued start to his career, Cantlay got back on track this year, needing just a dozen starts to qualify for the Tour Championship. He went next level earlier this month with his playoff victory at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open.


    RSM Classic: Articles, photos and videos

    Full-field scores from the RSM Classic


    They say these trends come and go in professional golf, but as the average age of winners continues to trend lower and lower it’s safe to say 25 is the new 35 on Tour.

    A feel for it. For all the science that has become such a big part of the game – from TrackMan analysis to ShotLink statistics – it was refreshing to hear that Patton Kizzire’s breakthrough victory at the OHL Classic came down to a hunch.

    With the tournament on the line and Rickie Fowler poised just a stroke back, Kizzire’s tee shot at the 72nd hole came to rest in an awkward spot that forced him to stand close to his approach shot to keep his feet out of the sand. His 8-iron approach shot sailed to 25 feet and he two-putted for par.

    And how far did he have for that pivotal approach?

    “I have no idea,” he laughed.

    Fall facelift. Although the moving parts of the 2018-19 schedule appear to be still in flux, how the changes will impact the fall schedule is coming into focus.

    The Tour’s goal is to end the season on Labor Day, which means the fall portion of the schedule will begin a month earlier than it does now. While many see that as a chance for the circuit to embrace a true offseason, it’s becoming increasingly clear that won’t be the case.

    The more likely scenario is an earlier finish followed by a possible team competition, either the Ryder or Presidents cup, before the Tour kicks off a new season in mid-September, which means events currently played before the Tour Championship will slide to the fall schedule.

    “So if you slide it back, somebody has to jump ahead. The mechanics of it,” said Davis Love III, host of the RSM Classic and a member of the Tour’s policy board. “I’m still going to go complain and beg for my day, but I also understand when they say, this is your date, make it work, then we'll make it work.”

    While 2019 promises to bring plenty of change to the Tour, know that the wraparound season and fall golf are here to stay.

    Product protection. Speaking of the fall schedule and the likely plan to expand the post-Tour Championship landscape, officials should also use the platform to embrace some protections for these events.

    Consider that the RSM Classic featured the third-strongest field last week according to the Official World Golf Ranking, behind the season-ending tournament in Dubai on the European Tour and the Dunlop Phoenix on the Japan Golf Tour.

    The winner in Dubai received 50 World Ranking points, a marquee event that has historically been deeper than that week’s Tour stop, while the Dunlop Phoenix winner, Brooks Koepka, won 32 points. Austin Cook collected 30 points for his victory at Sea Island Resort.

    All told, the Japan event had four players in the field from the top 50 in the world, including world No. 4 Hideki Matsuyama; while the highest-ranked player at the RSM Classic was Matt Kuchar at 15th and there were seven players from the top 50 at Sea Island Resort.

    Under Tour rules, Koepka, as well as any other Tour members who competed either in Japan or Dubai, had to be granted conflicting-event releases by the circuit.

    Although keeping players from participating in tournaments overseas is not an option, it may be time for the circuit to reconsider the conflicting-event policy if the result is a scenario like last week that relegates a Tour event to third on the international dance card.