A Million Dollar Day

A Million Dollar Day
Photo/Benjamin Rusnak
The 10th annual Els for Autism pro-am raises $1.1 million for a very worthy cause

The man in shorts smiling and casually smacking balls onto the range at the Old Palm Golf Club practice tee is the winner of a record 18 major tournaments, one Jack Nicklaus. Right next to the Golden Bear, Nick Price, himself the holder of three major titles, is striking pure shot after pure shot. And a few spots down, displaying less skill, but no small amount of enthusiasm, a group of eager amateurs tunes up for a day that brings both long drivers and duffers together for a worthy cause: the 10th annual Els for Autism Pro-Am.

The faint pop of Champagne bottles being uncorked can be heard over the breeze as the steady smack of steel clubs striking dimpled balls resonates again and again. The heady occasion calls for a toast, and soon Marvin R. Shanken, editor and publisher of Cigar Aficionado magazine and one of the founders of the Pro-Am, picks up the microphone and calls the group over to the practice green.

The 22 teams, each of them headed by a professional golfer, surround Shanken and pro golfer Ernie Els, for whom the charity is named. A team of bagpipers begins to play. By the end of the day, birdies would drop, friendships would be forged, cigars would be puffed and $1.1 million would be raised for a worthy cause, pushing the 10-year total raised at this event to $10 million.

“It’s 10 years. It’s hard to believe,” Shanken had said at the opening dinner on Sunday night. Held on the grounds of the Els Center of Excellence, the school in Jupiter created with the funds raised by this Pro-Am, that event showed the crowd why they were here. The site is a hub of education and information for autism, one of the most serious developmental disorders affecting children in the world today. Joining Shanken on stage was Els and his wife Liezl, whose son Ben has autism and is a student of the school.

It was an all-star field of pros. Joining Nicklaus, Els and Price were Rory McIlroy (who would go on to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill the following weekend with a score of 18 under par), Charl Schwartzel, Louis Oosthuizen, Thomas Aiken, Peter Uihlein, Cameron Tringale, Robert Allenby, Heath Slocum, Jamie Lovemark, Keegan Bradley, Branden Grace, Tony Finau, Rory Sabbatini, Camilo Villegas, Bud Cauley, Peter Malnati, Marc Leishman and Jon Curran.

Refreshments were provided by Grey Goose, Ketel One and Belvedere vodka, Herradura Tequila, Glenlivet Scotch and Wines of Australia. For the many cigar smokers on the course, fine cigars abounded. Alec Bradley offered a broad range of its cigars, including the Alec Bradley Prensado (a former Cigar Aficionado cigar of the year), Coyol and Tempus Natural. La Flor Dominicana had plenty of its La Flor Dominicana Coronado Double Coronas, Oliva Cigar Co. had Serie V cigars and Padrón cigars offered a choice of the milder Damasos or stouter Padrón 1964 Anniversary Series Exclusivos. At the dinner the night prior, a cigar lounge was offered, featuring cigars from Arturo Fuente, EPC Cigar Co., Joya de Nicaragua and Villiger.

It was a friendly day, and two teams tied for the lowest score, each shooting a 56 in a best-ball format. In a tiebreaker, victory went to the team headed by pro Robert Allenby and consisting of Jeff Branson and Ryan Bibbo of Bacardi USA, and Sean Eckhardt of Southern Glazer’s. Johann Rupert, CEO of Richemont, golf pro Louis Oosthuizen, Rurik Gobel and Scott Mahoney came in second.

“It’s things like this that put life into reality,” Allenby said after the event. “What Ernie and Liezl are doing is mind-blowing. They’re all about helping others, and the school is unbelievable. It’s beyond what anyone dreamed. I play in a lot of these, and I always feel privileged to be part of it.”

“You work hard, you’re busy, but to take the time out and contribute to a cause like this makes it all worthwhile,” said Jeff Branson of Southern Glazer’s.

“You’re changing lives,” Els said to all the golfers at the luncheon concluding the event. “When we moved here, Ben didn’t want to go to school. Now he loves to go to school. Thank you very much.”