‘Years from now people may remember me as a golfer and a major champion. But I’d like also to be remembered as somebody who took the issue of autism and did something with it’
Ernie Els is one of South Africa’s favourite sons, a golfing millionaire and a winner of four Major championships. They called him ‘The Big Easy’ because of a silky smooth, effortless swing that caught the eye from his decorated amateur days.
Els is a loving husband to Liezel and a doting father to Samantha, but the family received news that was difficult to deal with when Ben was diagnosed with autism, aged seven. It was a devastating discovery.
‘We’d suspected for a few years that something was wrong. I mean, there’s a process every kid goes through. Crawl at nine months, walk at 12 months, and then start talking and so on. With Ben we started thinking: “Why is he not crawling? Why is he not walking? Why is he not looking me in the eye?” Things like that. We soon discovered he was quite profoundly impacted by autism,’ says Els.
‘One in 68 children is affected by autism and that was perhaps the most shocking thing about all of this; the number of people it affects. And you know, it hits the whole family hard. For a long time you are trying to figure out “What just happened to my life?” You feel sorry for yourself and for your kid and for your family. And the tragedy is that even in this day and age, the kid who has autism is often forgotten about.
‘The feeling is that he’s almost a waste of time, which says a lot more about society than it does the child. It’s heartbreaking.
‘Ben’s condition was the main driving force behind our decision to relocate our base from Wentworth to West Palm Beach in Florida. The move has benefits for my golf, but more importantly we have been able to secure a more intensive form of therapy for Ben. And he’s doing great. He might act and say things a little differently from other kids, and he obviously has some difficulties, but he understands everything we say and is particularly in tune with our emotions; it’s almost like a sixth sense. And thank God he’s got such a nice nature. He’s a very friendly, very happy, very shy kid and the more loving attention he gets and the smiles he sees, the better. Samantha, his older sister, is great with him,’ says Els.
‘Years from now people may remember me as a golfer and a major champion. But I’d like also to be remembered as somebody who took the issue of autism and did something with it.’
Els is the ambassador for the SA Open, which is the second oldest Open – behind only The Open Championship – and the ‘Els For Autism Drive to the SA Open’ is a regular number of golf tournaments around the country with a view to qualifying for the finals at Highland Gate in November.
Compleat Golfer will keep readers updated on a monthly basis – in print and digital form on our website www.compleatgolfer.com – and we will be handing out 100 free entrance tickets to winning readers at the SA Open, as well as offering a couple of readers the chance to tee up at the November finals.
ELS FOR AUTISM
The Els for Autism Foundation was established in 2009 by Ernie and Liezel Els to focus on autism, a couple of years after discovering that their son Ben was severely affected by the disorder, which affects one in 68 individuals worldwide, Els for Autism aims to provide affected families with best practice interventions and support.
In 2011, the Ernie and Liezel initiated a project to create a service that would allow lower-resourced families of children on the spectrum in South Africa with free access to effective treatment and the Ernie Els Centre for Autism was born.