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Palm Beach Post: "Victorious at Doral, Ernie Els Out to conquer the Monster that is Autism"

Posted Mar 18 2010 12:00am

Ernie els From ErnieEls.com : Liezl and I are private people, but we are also very much in the public eye and we recognise that this gives us a platform to help raise funds and awareness for the causes of Autism and its possible treatments. It is something that we both feel very passionate about. We wish the Els family the best in their fight to help their son. You can comment at The Palm Beach Post .

DORAL — The Big Easy may be Ernie Els' nickname, but Easy Street never has been his permanent address.

Half a dozen times the Jupiter resident has been runner-up at one of golf's major championships, and twice in 2004 alone. Ernie's long ago run atop the World Golf Rankings lasted just nine weeks, too, for Tiger Woods has come to own that title and every other in the golfing universe.

On Sunday afternoon, however, when the final putt of a four-stroke victory at the WGC-CA Championship vanished into the cup, Els wore the almost incomprehensible look of a 40-year-old athlete going on 25, all things possible again if not absolutely likely.

Today at PGA National Resort & Spa in Palm Beach Gardens, yet another fresh wave of hope washes in.

A private pro-am tournament featuring Jack Nicklaus, Raymond Floyd and a long list of contemporary PGA Tour stars like Robert Allenby and Mark Calcavecchia is where Ernie will spend the day after his dominating Doral performance.

The event benefits the Els for Autism Foundation, which is as personal as it gets for the affable South African and his transplanted South Florida family.

Ernie and his wife Liezl moved to Palm Beach County, as a matter of fact, to take advantage of intensive therapy and specific educational opportunities for their 7-year-old son, Ben, who as a toddler was diagnosed with the complex neurobiological disorder of autism.

"We are kind of missing the cocktail party (for the pro-am) right now up there at PGA National," Els said with a grin Sunday night at the press conference marking his first PGA Tour victory since the 2008 Honda Classic at, you guessed it, PGA National.

"We've got 22 pros, so we have 22 four-balls and people pay quite a bit of money to play. Obviously that money goes straight into the Els for Autism Foundation. Basically, our plan with this money, and the help of investors, is to build a really worthwhile 30,000 square-foot center in Palm Beach County for 300 children, and to have this center self-contained so that it works for itself and we don't have to keep putting money in it."

This is the second Els for Autism pro-am at PGA National. Last year the plan was to have a nice, quiet little kickoff event. Els couldn't believe what happened instead, as the Golden Bear and Greg Norman and Gary Player and many other stars with local ties signed up in support of their new neighbors, big Ern and his family.

More than $725,000 was raised that first time around. It's a cause that grows in significance, for the estimate of Autism Speaks is that 1 in 110 children is impacted by the isolating condition, and 1 in 70 boys.

Els' organizers are looking at land to buy for the proposed Els Center for Excellence, described as "a proposed academic village that will bring together the components of education, medical treatment and research for children on the autism spectrum." Ernie said they're talking, too, to "some families who have got some clout."

Sounds like an announcement coming soon, for very few major transactions take place in the northern end of our county without the networking influence of golf buddies.

Ben is lucky to be so loved, and so are all the other kids who eventually will develop their potential on the campus that Ernie and Liezl envision.

As for Sunday night's victory, the highlight of two years of work on Els' swing and mental approach to the game, Ernie said his son will enjoy all the excitement that comes with it, and so will their daughter, Samantha, who is 10.

"Liezl will show Ben the video," Els said. "He loves watching me practice. When I'm at the Bear's Club, he always comes out and gets on the range and watches me play. He tries to hit a couple of shots himself. He just loves being on the golf course with me."

The sizable gallery that followed Ernie around the Blue Monster the last four days can relate.

It brought back memories of another windy week at Doral, when Els go so far out in front of the field at the 2002 Genuity Championship that not even Tiger could track him down in the final round.

Reminded us, too, of the major titles that didn't get away from Ernie, the U.S. Opens of 1994 and 1997 and the 2002 British Open.

"I didn't think it was ever going to happen again, you know," Els said after a Sunday 66 that he told a national-television audience was enough to make the hair on his arms stand on end.

I'm betting that same startling sensation returns when Ernie gets to PGA National this morning to see what's happening at the pro-am, not only to help find a cure for autism but to welcome The Big Easy home.

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