"Jack. Rory. Greg. Raymond. Ernie," Marvin R. Shanken, editor and publisher of Cigar Aficionado, was reading a list of first names, and no one in the room needed last names to know who he was referring to. It was Sunday night, and the members of the audience were looking forward to the next day, for they were scheduled to head to Old Palm Golf Club in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, to play with the names on that list, a legendary cast of 22 star golfers who were about to tee it up for a very good cause.
It was the seventh annual Els for Autism Pro Am golf tournament. The money raised by this event—$1.2 million for this event alone—has delivered in a very real way in the form of a school for autistic children called the Els Center of Excellence. The site is envisioned as a hub of education and information for autism, which affects 1 in 68 children in the United States, and 1 out of every 42 boys.
Last year, ground was broken on the $30 million center, and this year the center is scheduled to welcome its first students in August.
The tournament was created by Shanken, Johann Rupert, chairman of Richemont, and pro golfer Ernie Els and his wife, Liezl.
"There may be other pro-ams," said Shanken, "but nobody else has this turnout-thanks to Ernie," said Shanken.
The pros consisted of Els, Thomas Aiken, Keegan Bradley, K.J. Choi, Luke Donald, Jason Dufner, Ian Baker Finch, Raymond Floyd, Rickie Fowler, Lucas Glover, Retief Goosen, Brooks Koepka, Will MacKenzie, Will McGirt, Rory McIlroy (the No. 1 golfer in the world), Jack Nicklaus (with 18 majors, the most successful golfer ever), Greg Norman, Louis Oosthuizen, Nick Price, Rory Sabbatini, Jordan Spieth and Cameron Tringale.
Els called the gathering "the best pro field ever out there."
Shanken spoke about the passion of Ernie and his wife, Liezl, to help children with autism, children that include their own son Ben. "It was a gleam in our eyes seven years ago," said Shanken about the Els Center of Excellence. "It's going to be a reality in the next few months."
Ernie Els spoke about the enduring needs of children who have autism. He and his wife were moved to create the education center in part by their dissatisfaction with the current facilities available to autistic children. "It's almost as if these kids were pushed aside," he said. "They're very special kids that need special treatment."
Liezl, who Shanken dubbed "the captain of the ship," spoke about her son. "Everything that we do here is for Ben, and for others who are like him." Her enthusiasm was palpable as she spoke about the Center nearing completion, the first students scheduled to sit down in class on August 24.
"We're building the best and we want the best to come to our place," she said.
The companies fielding teams in the tournament included Bacardi, Banfi, Brown-Forman, Campari America, Charmer-Sunbelt, Diageo, Deutsch & Sons, Giuliani Partners, Glazer's, Millennium Management, Moët Hennessy USA, Pernod Ricard, PGA National, Republic National Distributing, SAP USA, Sebonack Golf Club, Southern Wine & Spirits, Stonehage and Terlato Wines.
Beverage and cigar stations were set up throughout the course. Skyy Barcraft and Bulldog Gin, Grey Goose, Jameson's and Ketel One prepared icy cocktails for the golfers throughout the day, while Davidoff of Geneva, La Flor Dominicana, My Father Cigars, Oliva Cigar Co. and Padrón Cigars Inc. ensured the competitors had plenty of wonderful cigars.
At the conclusion of the tournament, the golfers gathered at Old Palm's 19th hole, a green set up on this day for a special shot. The pros each had a chance to get a hole-in-one, which would have earned $2 million for the charity. The contest was sponsored by Ketel One.
One by one their names were called by Shanken, as each man tried the tricky shot: 110 yards over water, with a breeze making the yardage difficult to nail with precision. Each one tried, but none could sink an ace. (Although Tringale came oh-so close, making the crowd gasp.)
At the end, all made their way to the tent, as a few drops of rain fell, having held off respectfully for the day. Well-earned drinks were sipped and plates of food were tucked into as the winners were called up by Shanken.
The team fielded by Ian Baker-Finch, an Australian golfer who won The British Open in 1991, won the tournament with a net score of 56. The players were Wayne Chaplin, president and chief executive officer of Southern Wine & Spirits; Rob Sands, president and chief executive officer of Constellation Brands, and Bill Newlands, chief growth officer of Constellation Brands.
Nick Price, a cigar-smoking golfer with three majors to his credit, led the second place team from Richemont Group, with Johann Rupert, Rurik Gobel and Richard Rushton. Luke Donald's team, which was led by Billy Terlato of Terlato wines, placed third.
Els gave a final word of thanks, a voice of appreciation for his fellow professional golfers giving up their traditional day off.
"I really appreciate you guys coming out," he said in earnest.
To find out more about the Els for Autism Foundation, you can find information at http://ernieels.com/els-for-autism/. If you would like to contribute to the The Els Center of Excellence, all checks can be made out to the following, or you can go directly to the website and donate by credit card:
Els for Autism Foundation
Attn: Foundation Controller
3900 Military Trail, Ste. 200
Jupiter, FL 33458