The hole was the size of an orange, and sat more than 340 feet away. The stiff breeze made it seem longer. Around it, a green whose slopes, petite size and oblong shape made the task at hand even more difficult—finding that target with a hole-in-one.
One by one they tried, nearly 20 professional golfers, some of the world's best. It was the conclusion of the eighth annual Els for Autism Pro-Am, hosted by Cigar Aficionado and Wine Spectator magazines, and a hole-in-one would raise $1 million for the charity at a time of great need. Some came close, drawing gasps and cheers from the crowd, followed by polite applause. But no ball ended up in the hole.
Ernie Els, whose son Ben was the inspiration for the event, had led the way. Now he stood with the microphone. "Is there anybody else?" he asked, looking around. "Rickie, come up here." Rickie Fowler, all five feet, nine inches of him, a mere 27 years old, stepped up to the tee. He had already put his gear away, so he borrowed a wedge from Luke Donald and a golf ball from Thomas Aiken. He didn't have a golf glove. He swung, a gorgeous stroke.
"Rickie, stay on line!" said Els as the ball soared.
"Go in!" urged Els, as the ball hopped on the green. And amazingly it went into the hole.
The crowd erupted.
In a moment that went viral on social media and was widely covered by ESPN, the Golf Channel and a host of other outlets, Fowler dropped the club as his fellow pros and the players from the tournament shouted in joy and rushed toward him. Ernie Els, the Big Easy, grabbed Fowler in a bear hug and lifted him in the air.
That hole in one—sponsored by Ketel One Vodka and SAP—had earned $1 million for the Els for Autism Foundation.
"It was utter hysteria when Rickie one-hopped the ball into the cup. We all went wild in celebration," says Marvin R. Shanken, editor and publisher of Cigar Aficionado and Wine Spectator. "Best day of the year!"
Els was beaming with pride as he stood near the tee box. "This man—he is my hero," he said of Fowler. "The hairs on my arm are still standing up."
"I can't put into words how much it means," said Ernie's wife, Liezl.
"What an awesome day and moment that was!" said Fowler in a text message sent after the event to Shanken. "Special. One of the coolest moments I have ever been a part of."
The exciting finish capped a great day of golf, a Pro-Am created by Shanken and Ernie and Liezl Els. Held on a breezy day at Old Palm Golf Club in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, the Pro-Am paired 66 amateurs with 21 of the biggest names in golf.
The charity had raised $7 million before that shot. The focus of the charity has been the creation of the Els Center of Excellence, a school for children with autism. The lower school opened last August, serving some 120 students. There is a spot on site—and a need—to create an upper school and expand the capacity to 300.
The shot's timing was perfect. The night before, pros and amateurs alike gathered at the new Els Center of
Excellence to tour its classrooms, walk its grounds (which even has a chip-and-putt golf course for the children) and watch presentations by Shanken, Liezl Els and several of the school's students.
"A dream come true," said Shanken from the stage. "Hazel and I are so proud of what Ernie and Liezl and their team have accomplished."
Said Dr. Marlene Sotelo, the Center's program director: "I've been working with people with autism for more than 20 years and I can honestly tell you there is no place like this in the world. Everything has been built with the needs of children with autism in mind. It's a beacon of hope."
The school is grand and impressive, set on a 26-acre campus, but standing behind it is an open space reserved for the next phase of the project, the upper school for high-school age children.
Debate had ensued about when to begin the new project, but there just wasn't enough money. A board meeting was scheduled for 9 a.m. the next morning after the Pro-Am. Shanken was against the expansion and others were for it.
"The main topic of discussion was whether we are financially able to begin construction of the upper school, which would require an additional $10 to $12 million," says Shanken. "My position was we should wait until we were on a stronger financial footing, but other board members, including Ernie and Liezl, were planning to vote yes. Once the hole-in-one occurred, I knew my position to defer was going to be tougher. Liezl looked me in the eyes and said, ‘Now you better say yes' as she was gripped in emotion."
At the morning meeting, there was more good news: Liezl told Shanken that Johann Rupert, the chairman of luxury goods company Richemont Group and a cofounder of the Foundation, had donated an additional $1 million. That, plus a tea party held at the Els home that week raised the total for the week to $3 million.
"At that point I had no position other than to say yes," says Shanken. "Good karma has beaten me. I said, ‘OK, let's do it. Let's finish the dream of building our school for 300 beautiful autistic children.' "
As this issue was going to press, the earliest stages of construction were already beginning on the upper school. Shanken says his hopes are that the school will be open in 18 months.
"I have received innumerable e-mails, phone calls and texts from people who saw the publicity after it went viral," says Shanken. "It really was extraordinary."
The celebrity golfers who played in the Pro-Am included Els, golf legend Jack Nicklaus, Adam Scott (who won the Cadillac World Golf Championship the day before in nearby Trump National Doral), Fowler, Rory McIlroy, Louis Oosthuizen, Charl Schwartzel, Brooks Koepka, Nick Price, Thomas Aiken, Vijay Singh, K.J. Choi, Rich Beem, Luke Donald, Daniel Berger, Rory Sabbatini, Camilo Villegas, Retief Goosen, Tony Finau, Keegan Bradley and Greg Chalmers.
There were refreshing liquor and cigar stations spread throughout the course for people to enjoy. Campari, Bacardi, Ketel One, Jameson Irish Whisky and Moët Hennessy provided drinks for the thirsty golfers, and Alec Bradley, La Flor Dominicana, My Father Cigars and Padrón kept everyone on the course puffing on premium smokes throughout the day.
The contest was won, with a score of 58, by the team headed by pro Camilo Villegas, playing with Marc Goodrich, David Dean and Kevin Roberts. Second place went to Rickie Fowler's team, who was joined by Steve Rust, Larry Schwartz and Jeff Ivey, with third place going to Louis Oosthuizen's team of Marvin R. Shanken, Rudolph W. Giuliani and Rush Limbaugh.
"This could not have been possible without the enormous support from day one from my friends in the wine and spirits and cigar industries," says Shanken. "Their support has been unwavering."