A VIP experience at the SA Open, including a spot in the pro-am and meeting Ernie Els. That’s what the amateurs who tee up at the Els for Autism golf days are playing for.
It’s a special prize for a special cause.
Compleat Golfer caught up with Nico van Rensburg, the business bevelopment director for Els for Autism, after the Pearl Valley golf day. He manages the 15-tournament series that makes up the ‘Drive to the SA Open’.
‘We estimate that nearly 300 000 kids in South Africa are on the autism spectrum. That’s a serious number, so we need everyone on board to help,’ he said. ‘This is for the local player at his golf club who wants to give something back to the cause, so we try to spice it up for the people who play here.’
The funds raised go to the Els for Autism centre in Braamfontein, which provides support for 150 families.
‘Those families should not have to pay for help in dealing with autism. We’ve opened a satellite centre in Cape Town and Liesl [Els] wants to open another one in January in Durban,’ said Van Rensburg, who won six Sunshine Tour events between 1989 and 2005. ‘Ernie is a lifelong friend of mine and his son Ben is like a kid to us. This is a charity close to my heart and the support has been unbelievable – most of our events are full.’
The golf days are limited to 120 players competing in a betterball Stableford format. The winners of the 15 regional events qualify for the grand finale at Highland Gate Golf Estate, which was designed by Els. Victory at the final event is worth a VIP SA Open experience with The Big Easy.
‘Ernie has told me he wants to be remembered as somebody who brought autism to the world, not just for winning four Majors,’ said Van Rensburg. ‘He and Liesl are committed to doing as much as possible.’
At the Pretoria Country Club regional tournament a player made a hole-in-one and Els sent him a 30-second voice note to say congratulations. It was a sign of the World Golf Hall of Famer’s dedication to the cause.
Tied into the ‘Drive to the SA Open’ are a series of seven GameON Autism™ Golf Programme clinics, which were developed in the US as a once-off experience that uses golf to help children on the spectrum with issues such as instruction, taking turns and sharing.
The clinics are organised in collaboration with PGA of SA professionals and help local communities affected by autism. SNAG (Starting New at Golf) provides equipment and plenty of celebrities get on board, like Ryk Neethling, who visited the clinic at Pearl Valley in May. Anyone on the spectrum aged between six and 23 years old can participate in the GameON clinics, which run over the course of a morning.
‘Golf will always be our focus, because it brings Ernie’s two worlds together,’ said Shani Zuk, the programme director of the Els for Autism Foundation South Africa. ‘We contact a local school or autism centre to get participants and want to include as many communities as we can, involving groups we haven’t touched before. We’ve found it gives us an opportunity to expose more people to the world of autism.’
The Els for Autism centre is run purely off fundraising, from physical location to facilitators and online tools. The foundation developed a webinar series with the US-based team and are looking at mobile clinic options.
‘The golf days have been huge for us, they are kind of our foundations, and participants get to see the impact they are making,’ Zuk added. ‘There is no better way for us to get support for autism than through golf. That’s part of what the GameON clinics are about – people really want to help and we are able to bring them into the fold.’ – Mike Taylor