Golf: Ernie Els on a mission for autism

Ernie Els is at the forefront when it comes to caring for children with autism and uses his success on the golf course to raise awareness for a cause that's close to his heart

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 November, 2012, 4:47am

Ernie Els admits he thought his chance of adding another major to the three he won in 1994, 1997 and 2002 had probably gone. In his 40s with a fortune in the bank, and never the dominant force he had been since a knee injury in 2005, he could have been forgiven for giving up. But ever since a doctor's diagnosis that same year, the South African has been playing for more than just pride or ranking points.

In 2008, Els revealed that his son Ben, then five, had been diagnosed with autism three years' previously. Since then, every tournament he plays in, every ball he hits, is another opportunity to get his name - and by extension the cause of autism awareness - into the spotlight.

"Absolutely, you're so right," agrees the 43-year-old in the boardroom on the 40th floor of HSBC's headquarters in Hong Kong, where he spoke to the Sunday Morning Post.

"We were talking about it last week at my autism event, and I was saying to someone, the better I play, the more I get myself in the public eye, the more people are going to ask me about autism and about my son and I can keep getting the word out and get the awareness out there and help people through our cause. So it's very important for me to play good golf, not only for business but for charity work.

"One positive is that I've been able to spend more time with my family.

"[Ben] is doing great, he's 10 years old now. It is what it is. He's got his issues but he's a happy boy in a happy place and it's getting better."

Nothing raises a golfer's profile like winning one of the big four, and the British Open and the Masters have even more cachet. Els might have been somewhat fortunate to have won at Royal Lytham and St Anne's this year after his friend, Adam Scott, imploded on the final day, but he was at least in position to profit, something of a rarity in recent years.

"I've had plenty of seasons that were better than this, but to have won a major just takes it to another level. At my age to win a major, I'm very grateful. It made it an unbelievable year.

"In the back of your mind you always want to give yourself a chance [of winning more majors] but the way I was playing I didn't give myself a lot of encouragement.

"I think the last time I was really in contention was when Graeme [McDowell] won the US Open [in 2010] and I missed my chance there, but other than that, only here and there I had glimpses of what I used to be. My game took a bit of a dip, but I rededicated myself at the start of the year and was quite fortunate to win a major."

Part of that rededication has included working with a visualisation coach to help his putting, and giving up the partying to focus more on his game, his family and his autism work. Els' father gave up alcohol soon after Ernie was born, he told Golf Digest.

"For myself, for my family and for my future, it's better for me to change the cycle, too. It was always in the back of my mind, you know - it's in your family - but I can't say I ever really worried about it. Never," he told the magazine. "For all the fun, don't forget, I always knew when to put my golf balls down and practise. I'd say I'm just at a different stage of life now. I'm older. I've moved away from the parties."

Focus on the family actually cost him a chance of winning US$600,000 last month when he missed out on the PGA Grand Slam of Golf after spraining his ankle tripping on a ball while playing tennis with his daughter. But one plus was that it allowed him to attend the finale of his Els for Autism foundation's Golf Challenge in Las Vegas, the culmination of a series of fund-raising tournaments across the US.

"If there was a good side, it let me get to my autism event. I hit a couple of balls for guys in a clinic there. We had a great weekend in Vegas. People really enjoyed and appreciated it.

"There were 30 events around the country and people who raised over US$10,000 got to come to Vegas for the finale. In the two years, just through the Challenge matches, we've raised over US$4 million."

That money will go towards building the Els Centre of Excellence, an ambitious project aiming to become the world's leading facility to help children and young adults on the autism spectrum. The "Big Easy" is certainly not laid-back when describing his vision, his passion for the project.

"We've got the land in Palm Beach County [Florida] and we're going to break ground probably in the summer of 2013," Els says. "It's coming together now very quickly. The next challenge is to get everything within budget and so forth. It's going to be the place in the world we feel, we don't think there's going to be another centre like it in the world and hopefully through it we can inspire others, people can copy us all around the world."

Aiming to open in 2015, the US$30 million centre plans to develop a web-based e-learning system (children on the autistic spectrum often learn social and academic skills better through computers) that will be available globally, as well as acting as a hub for autism research. It will also have an on-site education facility, medical and professional services.

"These are the kind of things that these kids really need because in a lot of cases, in a lot of countries, they only get taken care of until they're 14," says Els. "Whether these kids can get into normal society or not, care stops, so they either go back home or go into a mental institution or something. We want to have them until they're 21 years old and then create jobs for them in the area.

"It's going to be a centre for 300 kids, most probably for the Palm Beach area. Ben is in a school at the moment and it's bursting at the seams. I think the school can only take 60 to 70 kids and there's a waiting list like you can't believe, so it's a huge problem. If the US is finding difficulty to build these institutions for these kids you can imagine the rest of the world."

Els' place in golf's history books is already secure. You suspect that will be just a part of his legacy.