Rickie Fowler smacked a shot for the ages yesterday at Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, sinking a hole-in-one worth $1 million at the annual Els for Autism Pro Am, hosted by Cigar Aficionado and Wine Spectator magazines. The prize, given to the Els for Autism charity, swelled the money raised at the event to a record $1.8 million.
"It was utter hysteria when Rickie one hopped the ball into the cup. We all went wild in celebration," said Marvin R. Shanken, editor and publisher of Cigar Aficionado and Wine Spectator.
The money will be put to good use. 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 year, and there is a spot on site—and a need—to create an upper school for older children.
"With the $1 million from the hole-in-one contest the day raised $1.8 million. This will go a long way in our next step of starting construction for the Els upper school," said Shanken.
The hole-in-one was the final event of the Pro Am, held on a breezy day at Old Palm Golf Club. After a tournament pairing 66 amateurs with 22 of the biggest names in golf, it was time for the pros to take their shot at the $1 million.
The target—the 19th hole at Old Palm—sat tantalizingly close, a mere 110 yards away officially, but a stiff breeze made it play more like 125. Slopes and contours added to the trouble, and the green's petite size and oblong shape made hitting the green difficult, and finding the cup all but impossible.
One by one they tried, smacking golf balls at the target, a mere 4.25 inches in diameter. Some came close, drawing gasps and cheers from the crowd, followed by polite applause. But no hole-in-one.
"Is their anybody else?" asked Els, 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 clubs away, so he borrowed a club from one golfer and a ball from another. He swung. The ball soared. It hopped. And amazingly it went into the hole.
The crowd erupted.
Ernie Els, the Big Easy, the host of the Els for Autism tournament, grabbed Fowler in a bear hug and lifted him in the air as the crowd cheered and drew close, caught up in the emotion. That hole-in-one—sponsored by SAP and Ketel One Vodka—had earned $1 million for the Els for Autism charity, setting the stage for the expansion of the school that just opened its doors this past summer.
"This man—he is my hero," said Els. "The hairs on my arm are still standing up. It's a million bucks—we can start the second phase now."
Ernie's wife, Liezl, was overcome with emotion. Their son Ben, who has autism, was the inspiration for the charity, which prior to this day had raised $7 million. Ben attends the lower school, which opened its doors in the summer. He is drawing near the age where he would need to enter the upper school, which doesn't yet exist. This shot makes it more likely a reality.
"No one came close last year," Liezl Els said of the hole-in-one contest. "This means we can build the upper school. I can't put into words how much it means." She looked over at Fowler, appreciation in her wet eyes, as he was surrounded by the crowd.
"You couldn't ask for a better moment to have something like that happen," said Fowler, minutes after taking the shot and being swarmed by an appreciative mob of awestruck fans and fellow golfers. "It's definitely special to be a part of day's like this. This is the cherry on the top."
The celebrity golfers who played included host Els, Rickie Fowler, golf legend Jack Nicklaus, Adam Scott, Rory McIlroy, Louis Oosthuizen, Charl Schwartzel, Brooks Koepka, Nick Price, Thomas Aiken, Vijay Singh, K.J. Choi, Rich Beem, Cameron Tringale, 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 Möet Hennessey provided drinks for the thirsty golfers, and Alec Bradley, La Flor Dominicana, My Father Cigars and Padrón kept the contestants and golfers 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.
"So many star pros to thank for their playing on their day off. So many amateur players to thank from the wine, spirits and cigar industry for their ongoing support," said Marvin R. Shanken. "The best day of the year!"
For a photo gallery of the complete event, visit cigaraficionado.com this week.
For even more coverage, read the June issue of Cigar Aficionado, on newsstands April 26.