Commentary

Ernie Els and son: Interlocking grips

Away from the PGA Tour schedule, Ernie and Ben, who is autistic, are inseparable

Originally Published: April 4, 2011
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

Ernie ElsDavid Cannon/Getty Images Ernie can give Ben the finest care available. He's trying to make it available to others, too.

The emails arrive each day.

Ernie,

I too have a son on the Autism spectrum … I could really empathize with the situation you spoke about -- the hurt, the anguish … I get so much pleasure out of my son Joey. He is an amazing kid, as I am sure Ben is as well. I just want to thank you for doing what you do and showing people they don't have to be scared if they are in the situation we both found ourselves in.

And …

Hello, Ernie.

I appreciate and respect all the work you and your wife have put into Ben's autism and the foundation. My little nephew has just recently been diagnosed with it. I love this little guy like he was my own. He is a huge fan of yours. (I don't even have to point you out anymore on TV!) He just says, "Uncle, Big Easy is shooting the puck! Go, Canada, go!"

Anyway, just a note to say you have a great following in Canada and we wish your family the best.

P.S. -- Please win Augusta.

For what it's worth, the Vegas oddsmakers have Ernie Els at 60-1 to win the Masters this week. That's nothing. The odds that Els would ever become an international spokesperson and world-class philanthropist for autism research were a VCU-like long shot, maybe higher.

[+] EnlargeErnie Els
David Cannon/Getty ImagesLiezl and Ernie have already raised more than $9 million in pledges.

But here he is, the unlikely front man for a cause he didn't choose. Instead, it chose him -- or more precisely, it chose his 8-year-old son Ben, who was diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in 2006.

Autism isn't picky. It afflicts the children of the poor, of the middle class and of three-time majors winners who own their own jet, winery and homes on three different continents. It doesn't care that Els is ranked 13th in the world. Or that he's won more than $40 million on the PGA Tour alone. Or that he'll be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame early next month.

Autism doesn't have a known cause. It doesn't have a known cure. It just appears. The reasons for its inexplicable existence remain a genetic Rubik's Cube. And then it turns lives -- and entire families -- upside down.

"At first, you think you've been knocked down by the man upstairs," Els said. "It is a challenge at first. But when you find your feet, it really is a blessing. It's a special way of life. These kids are special people. We call them, 'God's kids, God's children.'"

Els first noticed something wasn't quite right with his son in 2003. Els' daughter Samantha, three years older than Ben, had started walking when she was 11 months old. She was verbal, playful, communicative. She was daddy's little girl.

[+] EnlargeErnie Els
David Cannon/Getty ImagesErnie and Ben charted the course together during the Els Autism Pro-Am last month.

But Ben was different. It wasn't obvious at first; but as each month passed, Ernie and Liezl, his wife, realized that Ben wasn't progressing either socially or physically as Samantha had. He didn't crawl. His speech was infrequent. He didn't look into his parents' eyes.

There were moments of denial. Ernie and Liezl hoped, as any parent would, that maybe Ben would simply snap out of it.

Of course, they didn't know what it was. And they didn't know that research indicates that one in every 100 children born in the United Kingdom (Ben's birthplace) will eventually be diagnosed as autistic. In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates one in every 110 children have a form of autism, with boys four times more likely to be affected by an ASD.

"I think it's human nature that you start feeling sorry for yourself, thinking, 'Why?' and all that stuff," Els said. "The quicker you can love your child and get on with it, the quicker you can get on the road to recovery. In most cases, the child is not going to become what we consider 'normal.' You have to make peace with that."

It took awhile, but Els made his peace with it. And then he made a decision.

Els' nickname is "The Big Easy," a tribute to his golf swing and his disposition. If he has an enemy on the tour, nobody knows who it is. He's a favorite of galleries and, sure, even the media.

At the recent Arnold Palmer Invitational, I saw a woman seated at a clubhouse patio table ask Els, who was putting on a nearby practice green, if he would come over for a quick photo. Without really looking first, the then-defending tournament champion walked over to the table to find that the woman had stood up and was wearing a low-cut dress that strained to contain her … uh, well, you know.

As almost every player on the practice green ceased all movement, Els posed for the photo and then returned, blushing, to his putting session. Muttered an embarrassed Els as he lined up a putt: "I thought that only happened in the movies."

[+] EnlargeErnie Els and son Ben
David Cannon/Getty ImagesTips from dad? A pretty good way for Ben to learn the game.

Els is often approachable and accommodating, but he has his moments when it's best to stay two club lengths away from him. When it came to his personal life, he had done an impressive job of stringing razor wire around his world.

Ben's autism changed everything. It changed Ernie and Liezl.

"It's a very private thing, a very under-the-table thing," Els said. "The husbands, the dads take it very badly in a way. I've seen it … I think people are very selfish. I was selfish. If I had a boy, I said we'd do that sport or this sport. He'd go fishing with me. Well, you can still do that, just in a different light."

Now, the Els are trying to change those one-in-110 autism odds. Through the annual Els For Autism Golf Challenge, through the annual Els pro-am tournament and through his and Liezl's fundraising efforts, more than $9 million has been pledged toward construction of a $30 million Els Center of Excellence facility. The Center, to be built in Palm Beach (Fla.) County, will be devoted to autism spectrum therapy, research and education, including a global digital learning component.

Els didn't have to do this. He has the money to give Ben the finest care available in the world, and to do so without the world ever knowing. Instead, a once reluctant Els dived into the cause. That $9 million worth of pledges? Els would never mention it, but $6 million of it comes from his own wallet.

"We have a platform here in the United States," he said. "We just felt that if we speak up about it, other people will personally feel better about themselves in a way. It won't be this big mystery, this thing that nobody wants to speak about.

[+] EnlargeErnie Els
David Cannon/Getty ImagesHe's a long shot to win at Augusta, but an Els victory would be sweet during National Autism Awareness Month.

"Fathers come to me, talk to me about their autistic kids. I don't want to sound like the father figure of this thing, but they have someone sort of famous who they can talk to in a different way. There's so much pain and hurt going on. You can't talk to a psychologist about it because they don't understand. But when you speak to another father of an autistic child, you speak the truth."

Liezl was pregnant with Ben when Els survived a four-man playoff and then sudden death to win the 2002 British Open at Muirfield. When their son was born, their lives became different because Ben is different -- but in a good way.

"He's such a pure kid," Els said. "He doesn't have the normal problems as other kids. He doesn't know anything else. He just knows his own little world … I almost feel like we're blessed to have Ben because he's such a pure, honest, no-B.S. kid."

Els hasn't won a major since that British Open in '02. He hasn't won a tour event this season (his best finish is a T15 in February's WGC-Cadillac Championship). And the closest he's come to winning the Masters was a second-place finish in 2000 and again in 2004.

But if fate has a soft spot in its heart, maybe this will be the time Els finally slips on a green jacket (size 46 long). After all, April not only is the month of the Masters, it's also National Autism Awareness Month.

Imagine the emails then.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.

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