As he walked off the 18th green with a four-shot victory in the CA Championship, ending the longest and most discouraging drought of his career, some well-heeled friends were at cocktail party up the road at PGA National to get ready for a tournament no less important than the World Golf Championship that Els won at Doral.
The Big Easy spent Monday playing and hosting the “Els for Autism Charity Pro-Am,” with a lineup of stars that included Jack Nicklaus, Steve Stricker, Raymond Floyd, Adam Scott and Robert Allenby.
His goal, as ambitious as winning the career Grand Slam, is to raise enough money to build a 30,000-square-foot center in Palm Beach County that eventually would be self-sustaining and treat some 300 children who have autism.
That would include his son, 7-year-old Ben, with his big blue eyes and blonde hair.
“People pay quite a bit of money to play,” Els said of a pro-am that raised $500,000 a year ago. “And obviously, that money goes straight into the Els for Autism Foundation. Our plan is, with this money and the help of investors, to build a really worthwhile center. … In this environment, obviously things are a little difficult to raise money.”
He had gone 54 tournaments worldwide without a victory, and it is little more than a coincidence that the longest stretch without winning in his career came right after going public that Ben was autistic.
Els and his wife, Leizl, had known for a couple of years that the youngest of their two children had autism. It was only in 2008, after winning the Honda Classic, that he wanted the world to know, realizing that Els’ stature in sports could only help raise awareness.
As for the struggles with his golf? That was a battle for Els alone.
He had a couple of close calls, although none in the majors, the most recent in Shanghai when he was 10 under for his round and had a one-shot lead when he tried a heroic shot over the pond—a cut 5-wood to take some distance off from a downhill like—and duffed it, making a bogey and settling for second place.
“I don’t think the motivation was lacking,” Els said. “I just think that I went about it the wrong way. I was almost chasing my own tail a little bit. I was not looking after the smaller things. I was looking at the whole big picture on Thursday morning – ‘Oh, I’m going to win the golf tournament’ – and it takes four days of good play. It takes strategy. It takes mental strength. It takes patience.
“And I kind of let that all out of the window.”
It might have seemed as though the window was closing when Els turned 40 last year, a reminder of dwindling days.
After a sluggish start to the year, he began working harder than ever. After leaving PGA National at the Honda Classic on the weekend, he stopped off at the Bear’s Club to hit balls. When the tournament was over, he was back at Nicklaus’ club each day until twilight, searching for the right ball flight.
He found it in sharing the 54-hole lead with Charl Schwartzel, his 25-year-old protege from South Africa. Although Els looked wobbly coming down the stretch Saturday afternoon by missing short putts, he was practically flawless on Sunday.
Els played bogey-free in the final round for a 6-under 66, with only two bad misses. He hooked one tee on No. 6, then played around the tree and lagged beautifully from 70 feet to get his par. On the 14th, the pivotal hole at Doral, he again went left and clipped a palm tree, leaving him in the rough and unable to get at the flag.
He pitched on 25 feet right of the hole, hopeful of taking a bogey and moving on. With a one-stroke lead about to be erased, however, Els made the par putt on the last turn and was on his way.
“There’s always a turning point,” Schwartzel said. “And it’s amazing. You can just see it. When he knocked it in, I just sort of thought to myself, ‘Don’t let this be the turning point.’ But in the back of your mind … that was big for him, for his confidence.”
Els’ daughter, 10-year-old Samantha, followed him on the weekend. With so much attention on Ben, he is mindful that Samantha gets equal time. She loves to run over to the side of the ropes as her father walks by, making sure he sees her.
Els said Ben is still a few years away from grasping why so many are cheering for his father, the significance of a blue trophy that was the 17th on the PGA Tour for Els, and his 61st win worldwide.
Still, the Big Easy said his boy would watch the video. He knows golf.
“He loves watching me practice,” Els said. “When I’m at the Bear’s Club, he always comes out and gets on the range and watches me play. He tries to hit a couple of shots himself. He just loves being on the golf course with me. Yeah, we’ll show him the tape. I think he’ll get excited about it. I think it will be another couple of years before he understands what we’ve done, but that’s no problem.”