Els embraces role of a lifetime

Ernie Els with his son Ben during the Els for Autism Pro-Am at the PGA National on March 15.

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PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – So, Hogan thought the secret was in the dirt? Turns out another option was to send wife Valerie to a tea party.

“There was some good karma,” Ernie Els said, with a smile. “All of us played well. There might be something good to it.”

He was referring to the tea party organized by his wife, Liezl, at their home in Jupiter, Fla., that drew assistance from Candie Clark (wife of Tim), Sandy Allenby (wife of Robert), and Rosalind Jacobs (fiance to Charl Schwartzel). The cute slice to the story is that Els a few days later won the CA Championship, Schwartzel finished second, Allenby was T-11, and Clark T-22. But what registers with Liezl is the fact her tea party/lunch/auction might raise $100,000 to the autism cause that truly is front and center with the Els family.

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Ben Els watches his father Ernie putt during a pro-am at PGA National on March 15.

The reason for their crusade is most personal, of course – Ben Els, an adorable 7-year-old whose presence can light up a room quicker than a dozen spotlights. But so, too, does he serve to remind us how fickle is this world in which we live and how we should feel ashamed ourselves for all those times when we lose perspective.

When they went public with the news a few years ago that Ben was autistic, Ernie and Liezl had already come to terms with their situation.

“We’ve all got an issue in life, this is our issue,” Ernie said.

“It’s life,” Liezl said. “It puts you through the ringer, but you’ll come out the other side – maybe a little mis-shaped, but you’ll be there.”

Her smile and her laugh is a perfect complement to her husband’s heralded calm demeanor and large-as-life persona. When they agreed to work as a team to take on autism with a foundation that eventually will build a learning center near their home in Jupiter, it was agreed that Ernie and Liezl would be like pied pipers.

That was proven Monday at PGA National when 21 other pros showed up for Els’ charity pro-am to benefit his foundation for autism. Included in the mix was Justin Leonard, who wasn’t even scheduled to play, “but he kept telling us, ‘If you need me, I’ll come,’ ” Liezl said.

Turns out, when the PGA Tour stop in Puerto Rico stretched into Monday, some pros had to cancel. Sure enough, Leonard showed up.

So, too, did Allenby, “and all he does is do something for you everytime you need him,” Liezl said.

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Ernie Els with wife Liezl, daughter Samantha and son Ben at home in 2003.

Schwartzel also teed it up, one day after having pushed his boyhood hero to the limit at the CA Championship. Sunday’s golf at Doral had financially helped, yes, but Monday’s golf at PGA National had offered a richer prize.

Clark, Steve Stricker, Adam Scott, Stuart Appleby, Brett Quigley, Briny Baird, and Rory Sabbatini were all there. Oh, and that guy in the yellow sweater vest, the one whose swing you still stop and watch. None other than Jack Nicklaus.

How cool was that?

Els stopped his long strides and shook his head.

“He was my hero growing up. Unbelievable. To see him here today, to see all these guys, to see what Justin Leonard did, it amazes me. I almost can’t explain how good it makes me feel.”

Standing beside a scoreboard, it was noted that 66 amateurs had signed on to play in a pro-am where surely the cost was significant.

“You know why they’re here?” Chubby Chandler, Els’ manager, asked. “Because there are so few legends around.”

He is right, on both counts. We don’t have enough and Els is one of the few. The man is saturated in duende, which is why people don’t merely root for him, they implore him to win. “Errrrrnnnniiiee,” they screamed Sunday at Doral’s Blue Monster, and this time – unlike those opportunities that had slipped away in recent years – he did not disappoint.

But as much as it was a hugely popular victory, it wasn’t a total surprise to Els’ biggest fan.

“I had seen it coming,” Liezl said. “He had had so many mini-successes, you could see where the small mistakes had cost him. If he could avoid the little things, it would happen. And it’s a good that it happened now, because he’s put so much work into it.”

They drove Sunday night from Miami to Jupiter in relative quiet, just the two of them, free to share their joys and their emotions, because while they’ve always been a team, they lean on one another more than ever.

“We needed that time,” Liezl said.

Given their high profiles, Ernie and Liezl have accepted being put to the forefront of the autism cause. But she is always up-front.

“People come to me thinking I have the answers. I tell you, I surround myself with people who have the answers. I read everything I can get my hands on.” Liezl said. “I learn everyday.”

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Ernie and Ben Els

Among the things she has discovered is this: There is a priceless joy to those simplest pleasures, like those days when Ernie takes his son out onto the golf course or just to the practice range.

“(Ernie) loves that. It is their time to bond,” Liezl said. “It’s what Ernie has been doing since Ben was very little. It’s their special time together and it’s important for (Ernie) and for them. It’s lovely for (Ernie), because golf is his life.

“So, for Ben to love being out there while he’s playing it is special.”

Yes, more special than the CA Championship win. That was golf. This is life.

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