A year later Els continues fight against autism


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.'
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