More Than Just Winning for Els


It was the most significant round of golf played on the PGA Tour this year – a bogey-free 66 on a breezy Sunday afternoon at a premium-field event, which turned a tight ballgame into a runaway victory. More a test of inner-strength than a work of art, what made the performance so meaningful is that Ernie Els strode to Doral’s first tee with a share of the 54-hole lead and a lot more on the line than anyone behind him.
Ernie and Ben Els
Ernie Els and son Ben at Monday's autism charity event. (Getty Images)
More to gain, more to lose, definitely more to prove. Although Els’ career had been in steady decline since the fall of 2004, few people would dare to trace his freefall to the condition of his son, Ben, who was diagnosed with autism in 2007. Granted, Els underwent major knee surgery in the summer of  ’05, then made a hasty return to competitive golf that December, so more than a year passed between his comeback and an announcement regarding his son’s impairment.

Along the way, there were a couple of different management agencies, a change in equipment companies and several caddies, all while Els tried desperately to regain the form that made him one of the world’s top players for a decade. For a considerable portion of 2006, the Big Easy was actually taking advice from two sports psychologists. “I was almost chasing my own tail a little bit,” he acknowledged last Sunday. “I went about it the wrong way, wasn’t looking after the little things.”

His off-course business portfolio got thicker, but it wasn’t until Els was beaten by Phil Mickelson at the 2004 Masters, then lost a playoff to Todd Hamilton at the British Open three months later, that the comparisons became inevitable. The guy was turning into Greg Norman, consumed by competitive heartbreak, then chasing away the pain with a 10-gallon jug of distractions. Ben’s diagnosis shattered that broken heart into a million pieces, but both Ernie and his wife, Liezl, have recently said that their son’s autism has redefined their purpose in life.

The Els for Autism Foundation eventually will serve as 30,000 square feet of proof, the long-term plan calling for a south Florida facility capable of accommodating 300 children, but until last Sunday, there wasn’t substantial evidence that Els would ever be successful when it came to rebuilding his career. Having grown up with a severely retarded brother, I experienced the difficulties and emotional burden that can shape the existence of an entire family.

Sorrow. Guilt. Anger. I still tell anybody who will listen that my brother’s handicap impacted my own childhood as much as losing my father at the age of 9. The world seems much more understanding now, or maybe I’ve just grown up a little bit, but I cannot imagine a similar misfortune not affecting a world-class golfer, a three-time major champion already plagued by a certain amount of scar tissue accrued inside the ropes.

If you were born with more than an ounce of compassion, it changes you. Does that mean it alters the numbers on your scorecard? Only Els can really answer that, and though we haven’t spoken often in recent years, I got to know him well enough to say he’s far too kind and way too proud to blame the last five years of his golf life on the mental and domestic implications of his son’s condition. After winning last Sunday night, he admitted, “I didn’t think it was ever going to happen again.” They are words spoken by a man who has been forced to see the bigger picture, and at some point, came to terms with the hand fate has dealt him.

It is definitely not something Els would have said in 2004. There is a tendency among many of us to size up this type of victory by wondering whether it will improve the player’s chances of winning an upcoming major. The Masters is a tournament Els has loved forever and lost more than once, a title one might have suspected he’d win two or three times before all was said and done. His play at Augusta National in recent years has been awful, his three consecutive missed cuts reflective of a man trying too hard and knocking himself out of the hunt before the hunt had even started.

The Els I saw down the stretch Sunday afternoon looked more composed than the guy I saw in the prime of his career, when the Big Easy used to huff and puff his way through the pressure and visibly sigh after crucial moments. He looked emotionally unencumbered at Doral, and if he really thought he might not ever win again, he has no reason to feel that way now. With Tiger Woods either on the shelf or just coming off it, with Mickelson struggling to get all parts of his game working at the same time, Els has suddenly become both a thinking man’s favorite and a feelgood favorite, too.

“When I won [the Honda Classic] two years ago, I got all carried away with it and thought I was going to win at Augusta,” Els said last Sunday evening. “This time, I just want to take it all in.” Which isn’t to say he can’t get something out of it, too.