The Big Easy
With a focus on helping find a cure for autism, Ernie Els balances family, golf and a wine business
From the Print Edition:
Ernie Els, November/December 2012
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It was more than an hour after he sunk a 20-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole before Els could be declared champion. In all likelihood he would have to settle for second place, settle for the satisfaction that he could perform in a major again. The tournament was in the hands of Adam Scott, a good friend. But then Scott bogied the final four holes, handing Els the silver jug. The world of the Big Easy suddenly became much brighter.
At the victory ceremony, Els spoke out to his fans and those who might have thought that his Hall of Fame career had come to a dead end at age 42.
“I had a lot of support this week, but you guys have to ask yourselves, were you being nice to me or did you believe I could win?” Els said. Rousing applause told him they still had hope, a hope that even Els himself had found lacking during a completely lackluster 2011 season that was winless and mediocre, and combined with a so-so start to 2012 left him—crushingly—without an invitation to the Masters for the first time since 1994.
“I went through all the lows of the game last year,” said Els, sitting easy in a hotel suite on Long Island in August. “In a long career you are going to have lows, but nothing like the feeling I felt on the greens because I had been such a good putter. When I felt like I couldn’t make a two- or three-footer, it’s not fun. I had visions of me walking into the sunset and saying ‘Cheers.’ And to come back to win, wow, it was special.”
It was special, too, because of what Els and wife, Liezl, had been dealing with since the birth of their son Ben in October of 2002, three months after Els had won the British Open at Muirfield. They had long thought that Ben just wasn’t developing normally but it wasn’t until 2008 that their son finally was diagnosed with autism. After a period of dismay and grieving, Ernie and Liezl stepped forward to make Ben’s affliction public and autism their cause. The bright world of golf and family would become ever so much more complicated, but in a way, Ben helped his father through his tough times.
“My family, my kids, my wife Liezl are really my backbone,” he says. “Though I was down it didn’t affect their lives. I was the one who was down in the dumps. They tried to pick me up and they did. I wouldn’t say Ben knew what I went through. But definitely he is very sensitive in the way he can react to moods. He knows when I’m down. He can see it in my face. I don’t have to say anything.
“The thing with Ben, what I’ve learned from Ben during my struggle, is how unbelievable he is with his routine. With Ben, with autistic kids, the older they get the more they stick with their routine. When I started working at the start of the year, selfishly I was watching my son and it was helping me with my golf game, helping me get a routine.”
He needed something. He needed to find a way to be who he was, a worldwide winner of 65 events, 19 on the PGA Tour. And in a sports world rife with disconnect between super athletes and the fans who adore them, Els needed something that validated a connection that he always took seriously.
“The worst thing for a professional player is to play and then look around and your fans are almost embarrassed,” he says bending forward in his chair with a passionate sincerity. “I could see their expressions on their faces like they are looking at a guy who is a shadow of himself. That’s the thing that really pulled me down, that people actually lost faith in me.
“This is my passion as a person, this is my love, it’s what I do. Playing golf, this is what I felt I was put on the planet to do. It’s something I love so much.” From the time he was a teenager in South Africa, from the time he decided that golf was his game and his father put a practice green in the backyard, Els has had an absolute commitment to being a world-class player.
Nick Price, the Zimbabwean who developed his own world-class game in South Africa, remembers seeing Els as a youth and being taken, like so many others, with his swing. The scrawny six-foot, three-inch youth was graceful and fluid, his swing arc so wide that it could wrap itself around the Cape of Good Hope. Price saw Els turn first into a tour winner then a major championship winner. He saw Els earn the nickname “Big Easy” for his style of play and style of life. He thought it was a name that was appropriate and misleading at the same time.
“When he was about 18, I watched him from a distance hitting balls on a practice range and he had this lovely graceful, powerful swing,” says Price. “Once he made it out on tour in Europe then came to the U.S. it was apparent he had incredible talent. Because his swing is so graceful, one thing that can be overlooked is how soft his hands are. He hits these wonderful soft chips and pitches. He is one of the best chippers of the ball ever.
“But I want to say this so it doesn’t come out negative. The Big Easy title is a bit of a misconception. Deep down inside he’s as driven as anybody, as tough as anybody. The real Ernie Els is a very tough competitor, very astute, very aware of everything that goes on around him. You don’t win 60 tournaments around the world, four majors by being a gentle giant.”
It was Els’ U.S. Open victory at Oakmont in 1994, in the land of Arnold Palmer, that established his pedigree and his foothold in America. The victory was important way beyond his name on the trophy and the big check. “It gave me a place to play for 10 years,” Els says. And he made the most of it, piling up PGA Tour wins from the Westchester Country Club in New York to the Waialae Country Club on Oahu.
Westchester became a particularly good place to see the Big Easy game on the course and the Big Easy lifestyle on the Sports Terrace. He won at Westchester back-to-back in 1996 and 1997. Life was free-flowing then, just he and Liezl, caddy Ricci Roberts and friends. After morning rounds at Westchester, Els and Liezl, Roberts, Stuart Swanepoel, Maura Nolan and assorted other friends used to gather at a corner table of the club’s open-air Sports Terrace under a brightly covered awning, right at the intersection of two walkways. There were plenty of pitchers of beer, bottles of wine, glasses of strawberry daiquiris and loads of laughs. Els would acknowledge the fans who called out to him, and his cadre would often station themselves there for hours. The Big Easy was accessible, affable and approachable.
“Those were the days. We were very carefree,” says Els. “The [Sports Terrace] became an institution for us. We did that for about four years. We sat on the terrace, we had our one waiter, Jose. We are still very much like that. But obviously life has changed a little bit. We’ve changed a little bit. But in many ways we are still like that. We had the pitchers of beer, the wine. We still have those things, but not at the golf course anymore.”
Golf and life flowed along about as fluidly as his swing. The victories kept coming, a second U.S. Open in 1997 and his first British Open in 2002, plus scores of wins all around the world. He, like all his contemporaries, found himself overshadowed by Tiger Woods. In 2000 Els finished second at the U.S. Open and the British Open to Woods, and admitted that if he had played his very best he would not be able to beat him.
In 1999, the Els’ first child Samantha was born. “I was there at the birth and you naturally take to parenthood, don’t you?” says Els, again bending forward in his chair for emphasis. “It was a wonderful change in our lives.”
Three months after his British Open win in 2002, Ben was born. Things changed, forever.
“After a year both myself and Liezl, we both could see something wasn’t quite right, not normal,” says Els. “Unfortunately, most parents with autistic kids go through that same rigmarole when they take them to the family doctor and he says, no he’s just a little slow. Then you wait six months and you go to a guy you think is a bit more qualified and the guy doesn’t know what’s going on. We, myself and Liezl, basically diagnosed him ourselves as autistic. As he got older we got more and more into it.
“The beginning phases of your life with autism is a scary situation. You don’t know if you can handle it. As a parent, when our daughter was born, parenting was quite natural. With kids with autism, you don’t know. How are we going to raise a child with autism? There has to be an expert who knows exactly how to raise a child with autism. Well, that’s not true. You learn with your child. You try to figure out the best way forward and hope your instinct is the right instinct.”
Now, instead of just putting and chipping and honing his swing, Ernie Els faced a bigger challenge. Autism, a term used to describe a group of complex developmental brain disorders, can’t be cured. You can only cope. The coping process first starts with grieving, and that’s something that Els now knows just delays getting on with things.
“Finding out that he had autism, selfishly I felt sorry for myself, ‘Why the hell did this happen, was there something wrong with the birth, something wrong with the doctor, was there a lack of oxygen somewhere?’ Maybe not enough oxygen to him and something happened in the brain. But I made peace with it because I was there, I was there at the birth and nothing sinister happened. So this child was born with this disease. You start making peace with it. Okay, you are not going to be throwing a ball with this kid, probably, doing things that normal dads do with their 4–5 year olds. That hurt for a while.
“But right now, to be honest, looking back I wasted a bit of time going through that almost-grieving process, of why this and that. If I can give any advice to parents after they find out their kid is autistic, don’t waste that time trying to find why this happened. It is what it is. You’ve got to move on now.”
Els and Liezl knew they had to do something. Els’ global persona could cast a spotlight on autism, bring much needed attention to an affliction that seems to be on the rise.
“For quite a few years, myself and Liezl, we weren’t quite on the same page because I wanted to try and help with the science of it, finding a cure for it. Liezl said that takes a lot of money and you have to get the right researchers, the right scientists. She said why don’t we help our local community. That’s what is really needed immediately, a real center for these kids. This could be a satellite center for people around the world where we could do our own research in a way, in a school, a proper school, a proper center for these kids.”
The first step was a pro-am golf tournament which was the brainchild of Marvin R. Shanken, the publisher and editor of Cigar Aficionado and Wine Spectator magazines. He approached Els upon hearing his announcement about Ben’s autism during the awards ceremony after he won the 2008 Honda Classic. When the pro-am successfully raised nearly $750,000 its first year, the discussion of the foundation began in earnest. Shanken is on the board of the foundation, and is the cochair of the Els for Autism Charity Pro-Am golf tournament, which is held each year at PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, along with Johann Rupert, a South African business magnate and a longtime friend of Els.
Once the foundation got off the ground, Els and Liezl and those who surround them expanded the scope of the foundation’s goals. The plan includes a center for autistic children in the Palm Beach area. It is designed to be wired into the world so that parents in South Africa, Brazil, Japan, in every continent, could take advantage of research and advice at the highest levels.
“I have to mention Cigar Aficionado and Marvin. We have this tournament in March in Florida,” says Els. “Marvin has become a great supporter and dear friend of ours. It was really his idea. Most of the amateurs are his friends. He basically asked them to put up the money to play.”
Out of that pro-am grew the Els for Autism Golf Challenge, a series of 30 events across the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom that culminate with the Grand Finale in Las Vegas hosted by Els and a slew of his friends on the PGA Tour. The goal is to raise $30 million for the Els Center for Excellence, a facility that will provide education and therapy for children and young adults and a global digital learning platform for families, researchers, therapists and teachers. “The autism community, there is this little buzz going on underground, everybody emailing everybody saying my child is not eating this, or not sleeping at this time, so what have you done?” says Els. “There are these connections going on. We can make these connections public. It’s good for other people to see what these kids are like. We will have a camera in a room 24/7 and through that camera some person in South Africa can be learning and watching what teachers are doing with these kids.”
As he has throughout his career, Els has risen to the challenge of his son’s affliction and has worked it into his life in a manner that still meant he could compete at the highest levels. As Els’ persona morphed from a topflight player into a brand, with a golf course design business and a burgeoning wine business with a winery in the Stellenbosch region of South Africa, he has been able to absorb it all with aplomb.
Yes, there had been some low points. Caddie Ricci Roberts, who has carried Els’ bag for all four majors championships, was there for those as well. Els and Roberts have gone through several separations since he started carrying the bag in 1992. “We’ve been married and divorced more times than Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor,” says Roberts.
As he watched the smiles on Els’ face after the Open victory at Lytham, he also knew there was a great sense of relief. “This Open Championship, coming 10 years after his last major, has to be one of the highest highs of his career. I would think 2004 would be the lowest low. Phil [Mickleson] makes that putt on 18 to win the Masters. At the U.S. Open he plays in the last group with Retief [Goosen] and shoots 80. The Open Championship he loses to Todd Hamilton in the play-off. At the PGA Championship he three-putts the last green to miss the play-off. To have a chance to win all four majors and come away with nothing, it took a while for him to get over that.”
Els didn’t win on the PGA Tour from 2005 until 2008, but he did win tournaments worldwide, in Great Britain, South Africa, Dubai, Asia. In 2010 he had a two-win season on the PGA Tour and seemed to be going along swimmingly. Early in 2011 his putter sprung a leak and he couldn’t seem to stick a cork in it. It became increasingly frustrating, and when he missed a few two-footers, it became increasingly maddening. He didn’t win anywhere in 2011, and much to his personal distaste for the thing, he went to the belly putter, something he had described as cheating.
“I went to the belly, thought that was my way out of it,” says Els. “Then I found going to the belly—all the guys think its easier because it’s attached and you can make a better stroke with it—but you have to get used to it, and that took me over a year. I’m not totally for it, and while it is there and other guys are using it, if this is going to be my way out, let me give it a go.”
It wasn’t the solution. The solution was Dr. Sherylle Calder. Calder is a visualization coach at the Sports Science Institute of South Africa who has worked with many of the country’s star athletes, among them two-time U.S. Open winner Retief Goosen. Johann Rupert introduced Els to Calder at a tournament in South Africa. Calder conducts a program she calls Eye Gym and believes that the problems many athletes encounter are rooted in their eye skills. Els had known about Calder before, but since his putting had been a great strength, he felt no need to use her services. Seven months after meeting her in January, he was thanking her at the Open victory ceremony.
“She showed so much confidence in me. Teachers and these guys always want to analyze you, analyze your stroke and your posture, da-da-da, looking at that as the answer when that’s not the answer,” says Els, his voice rising. “The answer was between the damn ears.” Els claps the side of his head with his substantial hands, embracing the thought that it was his brain and not his stroke that was the culprit.
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