- Bob Harig, Senior Golf Writer
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DORAL, Fla. -- The man must have more passport stamps than any other active golfer, a true world traveler who enjoys competing around the globe. Ernie Els has homes in England, South Africa and the Bahamas, but said Thursday he is headed to South Florida.
The Big Easy wants to take advantage of the Florida sunshine but also said the move is important for his family, especially son Ben, who Els recently disclosed has autism.
Three weeks ago, days after his victory at the Honda Classic, his first on the PGA Tour since 2004, Els showed up at the PODS Championship with an "Autism Speaks'' logo on his golf bag. Ben, 5, is the younger of Ernie and Liezl Els' two children.
"There's been a lot of response from around the world,'' Els, 38, said Thursday after a 2-over-par 74 in the opening round of the CA Championship at Doral left him nine strokes behind leaders Geoff Ogilvy and Miguel Angel Jimenez. "We just felt as a family it was more the time to talk about it. It's such a big problem around the world. A lot of kids are affected, a lot of families affected. And we can help. That's how we got help, through the network. With my profile, I can help people and raise money for the prevention of it.''
Els, the third-ranked player in the world, is a native of South Africa who currently makes his home in the London suburb of Wentworth. That is where his children go to school.
But Els said that he feels he can get better treatment for his son in the United States, that he wants to be closer to his family when playing tournaments here and that the weather will be a boon to his game.
"Samantha, especially in the offseason, we can't take her out of school so much; she's getting older now," Els said of his daughter. "And for me to stay in England in the offseason it's tough to do. I'm a guy from South Africa, and I love the sun. I just can't see myself sitting in the cold for three or four months. I don't like that. I've always been comfortable down here. And for Ben, especially, it's really good stuff for him. It's a good move.''
Els appears to be headed to the Jupiter, Fla., area, where players such as Nick Price and Greg Norman reside. It is about 90 miles north of Miami and within a short drive of Palm Beach Gardens, where Els won the Honda.
That victory snapped an 0-for-47 drought on the PGA Tour and has Els feeling that some of the disappointing finishes in the previous six months are behind him.
It also has put him in a good frame of mind to go after another major championship, which he has not won since capturing the 2002 British Open. Since then, Els has suffered some anguishing defeats, including a one-stroke loss to Phil Mickelson at the 2004 Masters and a playoff loss to Todd Hamilton the same year at the British Open.
Els has not been a contender at the Masters since, and although he has had three top-fives in majors in the past two years, many figured there to be physical scar tissue from a 2005 knee injury and mental scar tissue from the tough defeats.
Perhaps the plight of his son also took its toll.
"Listen, we all have our issues, everybody,'' Els said. "This is life. It is not the easiest thing in the world, but he's the nicest little boy you'll ever meet in your life. We all get dealt with things in life.''
This week for Els, it is a nasty cold that had him feeling ill in the days leading up to the World Golf Championship event. That contributed to his lackluster play Thursday and him fretting about getting ready for the Masters in three weeks.
"I feel like I'm swinging good,'' said Els, who plans to play the Shell Houston Open the week before the Masters. "I'd like to put some good rounds together. I love this place, and it's unfortunate I didn't get it going. The next three days, I would love to get really good rounds under my belt and start getting momentum again.
"This year, I feel very comfortable with my equipment, and I just need a couple of good rounds. I've got seven competitive rounds until the Thursday of Augusta. I need to get the next seven rounds, good rounds, under my belt, and then go for it.''
Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.
Ernie Els, who carded a 74 at Doral on Thursday, has had a series of serious and not-so-serious setbacks recently. But, as Bob Harig found out, nothing seems to faze the easygoing South African.