It was a warm, sunny day on March 10 in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, an ideal setting for the sixth annual Els for Autism Charity Pro-Am. The tournament, which featured a who's who of stars from the world of golf playing alongside a field of passionate amateurs, raised $745,000 for a noble cause, autism research.
But before the first balls soared into the air at the Champions Course at PGA National Resort, gleaming blue shovels dug into the earth in nearby Jupiter, Florida, as Ernie and Liezl Els led the groundbreaking of The Els Center for Excellence, a center funded by the proceeds from the Pro-Am. One day, it will serve as a haven for autistic children and their families, not only as an education center for autistic children but as a research center and global outreach provider for children in Florida and around the world. The first classes are scheduled to begin in 2015.
More than $6 million has been raised by the Els for Autism Pro-Ams, an event started in 2009 by Marvin R. Shanken, the editor and publisher of Wine Spectator and Cigar Aficionado magazines, and the Els. The event, plus other activities of the foundation, has raised $15 million to date for the Center, which will ultimately require $30 million to complete.
The field consisted of 23 pros, each of them leading a team of three amateurs. The pros were Els, Adam Scott, Rickie Fowler, Michelle Wie, Justin Leonard, Vijay Singh, Nick Price, Louis Oosthuizen, Martin Kaymer, Charl Schwartzel, Thomas Aiken, Pat Perez, Kevin Streelman, Will McGirt, Justin Hicks, Thongchai Jaidee, Steve Marino, Michael Thompson, Graham DeLaet, James Driscoll, Matteo Manaserro, Branden Grace and Greg Chalmers.
For the field of 69 amateurs, it was a golden opportunity to play golf alongside lions of the game. There stood Els on one tee-box, booming a long drive with his trademark, seemingly effortless swing. On a nearby fairway, Singh struck an iron to tap-in range. Overlooking a long par three on the course's notorious Bear Trap was Fowler giving friendly advice to a playing partner about which club to choose to carry the imposing water hazard. On a fast-breaking green, Wie stroked a smooth putt for yet another birdie.
But the event was about much more than golf. Charity was the name of the day, from the contributions of the players and sponsors to the time donated by the pros, playing on what is traditionally their off day. Thank yous were abundant at the welcome dinner, held on Saturday night at the Els home.
"Ernie and I started this event six years ago with the sole idea of finding a cure for autism," said Shanken, speaking at the opening dinner, held the night before the Pro-Am at the Els home. "We didn't know there was a secret weapon in his home by the name of Liezl, who had much greater plans."
Liezl Els spoke with emotion about the far reach of autism, which affects one in 88 children, and one out of every 54 boys, including her son Ben, who inspired her and her husband to dedicate so much energy to finding a cure for autism. The groundbreaking of the Els Center for Excellence was the start of seeing the fruition of all that work. "The dreams of our past six years are coming true," she said, choking up with emotion.
"This kind of project is needed for the autism community," said Ernie Els. "It's been a long journey—it's been six years. Last year I said we have to show these people who are giving so much that this thing is a reality."
The co-sponsors of the event were M. Shanken Communications and the Richemont Group, with its chairman Johann Rupert. The participating companies included Bacardi, Banfi, Brown-Forman, Campari America, Charmer-Sunbelt, Diageo, Deutsch & Sons, Glazer's, Millenium Management, Moët-Hennessy USA, Pernod Ricard, PGA National, Republic National Distributing, Royal Bank of Canada, SAP, Southern Wine & Spirits, Stoli Group USA, Stonehage, and Terlato Wines, among others.
Beverage and cigar stations were set up throughout the course. Stolichnaya, Jameson's, Moët-Hennessy USA and Campari USA quenched the thirst of the golfers, while Davidoff of Geneva, La Flor Dominicana, My Father Cigars and Padrón Cigars Inc. ensured the competitors were not wanting for great cigars while tackling the undulating greens and tricky pin placements on the course.
The best-ball tournament was won by the team of pro Michelle Wie, radio star Rush Limbaugh, former New York City mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and Cigar Aficionado's Marvin R. Shanken. They shot a net 58. Two teams shot 59: The team of Adam Scott, Johann Rupert, Gaynor Rupert and Rurik Gobel took second place due to a tiebreaker, with the team of Will McGirt, Bill Deutsch, Ron Stoppelman and Mark Halpern taking third place. Billy Terlato and Ron Stoppelman won the closest to the pin competitions, while Russ Morrison struck the longest drive.
For more information about the Els for Autism Foundation, visit http://ernieels.com/els-for-autism/. If you would like to contribute to the The Els Center of Excellence, checks can be made out to Els for Autism Foundation, Attn: Foundation Controller, 3900 Military Trail, Ste. 200, Jupiter, FL 33458, or you can go directly to the website and donate by credit card.