Making a difference for autism, Ernie Els is Golfweek’s 2024 Father of the Year

JUPITER, Fla. – Forgive Marvin Shanken if he mixes up the course and the tournament where his pal Ernie Els won a certain PGA Tour event. After all, that’s more than 15 years and several victories ago. For those scoring at home, it was the 2008 Honda Classic. Yet all these years later, Shanken remembers with clarity how he felt when an interviewer asked Els about the Autism Speaks logo on his golf bag. That’s when Els revealed for the first time publicly that his then-6-year-old son, Ben, was on the autism spectrum.

“I was emotionally touched by what he said,” Shanken said.

So much so that the next night, during a celebratory dinner at his home, Shanken asked Els to step outside with him and pitched him on creating a charity pro-am.

“Let’s find a cure for autism,” Shanken said, pausing and raising his hands — palms out — towards Els. “Listen, don’t give me an answer now. Think about it.”

Two weeks later, Els called back. Count him in. Shanken, the editor and publisher of lifestyle publications such as Wine Spectator and Cigar Aficionado, replied, “Great, you get the pros, I’ll get the amateurs.”

The Els for Autism Pro-am has been a sellout ever since, raising an average of more than a million dollars a year. It’s changed lives for not just Ben but thousands of kids with autism, a lifelong brain disorder that hinders the ability to communicate and interact socially. Inspired by Ben, Ernie and his wife, Liezl, started Els for Autism, a non-profit foundation, in 2009. They have built the Els Center for Excellence, a 26-acre campus that includes a charter school for students ranging from age 3 to 22. The center has set a new standard for education of children with autism as well as pushing research for future treatment. As part of his efforts to raise both awareness and dollars for his cause, Els lent his celebrity to endorse his own brand of pet treats with proceeds benefiting autism, and envisions a day where his name and face could do for autism what actor Paul Newman did for improving the lives of kids through proceeds from the sale of salad dressing, popcorn, pizza and more.

Els was honored as the 2024 Golfweek Father of the Year at an awards luncheon Saturday at Reunion Resort in Kissimmee, Florida, as part of the Golfweek Father-Son Championship.

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Ernie Els celebrates with the winner’s trophy at the 2024 Principal Charity Classic at Wakonda Club in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports)

Since 1983, Golfweek has selected a Father of the Year. In another year, Ernie’s father, Neels, could’ve been the honoree for passing the game that his father-in-law, Ernie, had taught him in his native South Africa. Within two years, Neels was a 3 handicap and helped shape young Ernie into a champion. Thirty years after Els won the 1994 U.S. Open to launch a Hall of Fame career, he has won the last two PGA Tour Champions events to remind the golf world that he’s still got game.

“This is still my first love,” he said after winning the Principal Charity Classic. “I’m 54 now, let’s see where it goes.”

Nicknamed the Big Easy for his graceful swing that looks as if it requires little effort, Ernie was imposing his will on the world’s toughest courses, but dealing with his son’s autism was anything but easy. One in 36 children in the U.S. has autism, with boys nearly four times more likely to be diagnosed with autism than girls, according to a 2023 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Ben was born in October 2002, and within a few years warning signs appeared. Initially, Ben started school in England but it soon became clear he needed special attention. Ernie recalls forcing Ben into and out of the car every day for school. His older sister, Samantha, who went on to graduate from Stanford and is playing rugby for South Africa’s Springbok women’s national team, was the first to embrace her brother for the person he is. “She would come to me and say: ‘Mom, why are you trying to change him? Ben is unique,’” Liezl said.

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Ernie Els and son Ben connect through golf. (Courtesy Ernie Els)

First, they tried everything from a gluten-free diet to taking Ben to a doctor who practiced naturopathic medicine, which emphasizes the self-healing process through the use of natural therapies, and claimed he could fix anybody. It only brought Ben more pain and made Liezl sweat with fear every time she’d take him for treatment.

“It was breaking us,” Ernie said, noting that the brain development disorder often rips apart marriages. “It hurts as a dad because that’s your son. I was like, I just want a normal kid who can play rugby, wrestle with him, all that.”

“Men want to fix it and women want to nurture,” Liezl said.

More: Golfweek’s Father of the Year 2022: Mike Keiser, dad to four and founder of Bandon Dunes 

After a battery of tests and evaluations, doctors told Els his son had autism. It was a word Ernie and Liezl knew only in the context of Dustin Hoffman’s character in the 1988 film “Rain Man.”

“I think it’s fair to say that it took some time to get their head around it,” said Irish pro Paul McGinley, whose daughter was classmates with Samantha in London.

The diagnosis hit Ernie like a cold bucket of water, and he internalized his grief. In time he went from embarrassed to embracing the hand they were dealt.

“Like a lot of people, I didn’t know what the hell autism was. It made a big shift in me. I was like, ‘I’ve got to get into his world.’ I had to find what makes him tick,” Ernie recalled.

The heart of a man is measured in times of strife. Ernie sought a school in the U.S. that could accommodate Ben’s special needs. Ernie bought a house in Palm Beach in 2008 with a big garden, not far from the best charter school money could buy for Ben. Still, Liezl dreamed of a place that could provide more comprehensive support for the autism community. When Shanken visited the school, he warmed to the idea that the kids deserved better. Instead of raising money for research, they’d channel their energy into building a campus for kids like Ben.

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Groundbreaking of the Adult Services Building at Els Center of Excellence on April 11, 2022. From left to right: Hazel Shanken, Marvin Shanken, Liezl Els, and Ernie Els. (Courtesy Els Center for Excellence)

Multiple friends describe Liezl as a force of nature. Perhaps her biggest sales job was persuading Ernie that he had a larger purpose in life. Sure, he’d been given a gift to play a game at the highest level, she said; he would always be celebrated as a four-time major winner, but she convinced him that he had been given what she dubbed “a double gift.” She pleaded with him to leverage his platform for a greater good.

“I said, ‘What are you going to do with this? You can go cry and hide your head in the sand or you can use that platform you were given and complete you as a person. You’re now not just a golfer, you’re a humanitarian, you’re a philanthropist, you’re making a difference in the world,’ ” she recounted.

Challenge accepted. They found the land and opened the doors to the main building of the Els Center of Excellence in August 2015. The lower school features a kid’s library, a playground and rooms for music and art that are more whimsically decorated for youngsters. Credit the likes of Conner Sturgis, a grocery-store cashier, and Tour winner Rickie Fowler for the creation of the upper school, which features a tennis and basketball court and a sensory garden.

Nearly 10 years ago, Shanken, who didn’t have any connection to autism beyond knowing Ben before taking up the cause, was checking out of his local Publix and awkwardly asked his cashier if he was autistic. Sturgis was taken aback until Shanken explained that he was affiliated with the Els for Autism Foundation. Sturgis, a teen with a mild case of autism, responded: “When are you going to build the school for older kids like me?”

Timing of the construction of the upper school had been a source of heated debate. Liezl’s dream for kids on the spectrum was one step closer to fruition and nothing was going to delay breaking ground.

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

Shanken, however, ran the foundation like his other businesses and stood firm that they shouldn’t start any project until they had the money to complete the job. Shanken and Liezl were at loggerheads. Before their next round of debate at the upcoming board meeting, they would host the annual Els for Autism Pro-Am on March 7, 2016, at Old Palm Golf Club in Palm Beach Gardens. The course features a 113-yard par-3 19th hole surrounded by water to settle bets. All the pros took turns trying to make a hole-in-one. If anyone did, insurance would pay $1 million. Fowler forgot about the shot at glory and had packed his clubs in his car and already changed to sneakers when he was called back to give it a go. Wielding a pitching wedge borrowed from Luke Donald and a ball from Louis Oosthuizen, Fowler took dead aim. Ernie, microphone in hand, called the shot in the air: “Rickie! Rickie! Stay on line!”

It did. As depicted in a video that went viral, Ernie wrapped Fowler in a bear hug and lifted him into the air as those in the crowd, which included Rory McIlroy, lost their minds.

“It’s honestly one of the coolest things that’s ever happened to me in golf,” Fowler said. “To have that impact and make something real for all those kids that are going there — how do you top that?”

Johann Rupert, a South African billionaire businessman and longtime friend of Els, tried his best. He matched the $1 million donation on the spot, and they raised another $860,000 that day for a grand total of $2.86 million.

The next day was the board meeting. Liezl smiled and said, “There’s no way you’re telling me no now.” With the money secured, Shanken gladly changed his tune. “I feel obligated to approve,” he said.

Not even a hurricane could prevent the upper school from opening on time in 2017. Nor is that the only profound impact that Sturgis has had on Shanken and the Els Center of Excellence. Once, while out to dinner, he asked Sturgis to name the single-most important thing in his life.

“I was trying to understand inside the world of an autistic child,” Shanken explained. “He said, ‘Getting a job. All my friends are home. They can’t get a job. The luckiest day was me getting a job as a bagger.’ ”

Liezl refers to this as Shanken’s A-ha moment. He told the leadership at the school that preparing the autistic students for getting jobs when they graduate needed to be a bigger priority. They built an $8 million building with vocational labs dedicated to on-the-job training.

Liezl isn’t done yet either. On April 29, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced at the Els Center for Excellence that he was awarding $1 million to support the Els campus. The money from the state will support a new recreational complex the center plans to build. The facility would have a swim program, aqua therapy, indoor sports activities and a hurricane shelter for their clients. Ben is in his last year in the upper school and already has begun transitioning to an adult program in the afternoons.

“He’s a 21-year-old man, but he’s going on seven or eight in many instances such as his development, speech and social skills,” said Ernie.

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Aerial shot of the Els Center of Excellence, which opened in 2015. (Courtesy Ernie Els)

Golf is part of their connection. The Center for Excellence includes a two-way, 2 ½-acre training facility where students can play with plastic balls and clubs, proof that the game transcends all. Ben’s also big into playing kickball and going to the course with Ernie when he practices at the Bear’s Club, just the two of them. He also enjoys riding in the golf cart when Ernie plays with friends.

“He’ll come for nine holes, sometimes 18. If it’s a little warm, he doesn’t really do well in heat. But we shoot the shit with the guys, talk golf. He brings that language home. He likes to wind up his mom,” Ernie said.

Before he passed away in 2023, former Tour-pro-turned-caddie Lance Ten Brock used to be Ernie’s partner in matches and they’d take on everyone at the club. “Lance, like me, he’s got quite a mouth. Lance likes to call Ben, ‘Hey, Fokker,’ you know from the movie (Something About Mary). He’s got a bit of that.

“Then Ben loves to travel. He loves flying now commercially. For a long time we had our own plane so we’d fly privately, and always with the big planes, he’s like, ‘I want to go on the big plane,’ and then he found out the big plane had a lot of people and he was uncomfortable back in the day. Now he loves flying. Three or four days out, he starts thinking about the flight, and then he starts asking, ‘Are we flying American?’
‘Are we flying Delta’
‘What are we flying?’
‘We’re flying United.’ And on his computer he goes and visits United and he starts packing. He loves to keep his bag. He’s quite a character.

“He’s an outgoing, fun-loving, shit-talking boy,” Ernie adds. “His character and personality have come out. He’s the exact opposite of what he was when I forced him into school with Samantha.”

One day in early March, Ben was finishing up lunch when he was told a friend of his father’s had come to visit. “Swing like Ernie,” Ben said with a smile. “Ernie is the Big Easy.” There were a few F-bombs mixed in but those were terms of endearment coming from Ben.

“He has no clue what it means. He just knows it makes other people laugh, unfortunately, and he loves to make people laugh,” Liezl said. “When he gets a smile, he keeps going.”

The Els Center of Excellence has hosted leaders of the autism world for conferences and Ernie and Liezl are constantly being stopped at golf tournaments and even on airplanes for advice about dealing with autism. In February, Ernie flew from Portugal to Miami, and a 26-year-old English male was seated next to him and he and his wife just had welcomed their first child. “He was like, ‘I’m not sure if he’s autistic,’ and I said, ‘Well, show me a picture, show me some video.’ I kind of broke the news to him, I said, ‘I think he has autism, but he doesn’t have it very severe. So just reach out to people and then find out quickly how severe it is and how you can get into that kid’s world.’ “ 

“First of all, it’s not a sentence,” Ernie said. “It’s going to change your life, and I think it changes your life for the better. But what advice would I give? Get over the shock and get over the initial how did this happen kind of a thing to then really get information quickly and get information from people like us who have been in it for a while.”

The key for Ernie and Liezl? Being on the same page. “Talk, talk, talk,” Liezl said. “It’s OK to be different. He’s different in how he handles Ben and it’s good for Ben. I couldn’t do it without him, and he definitely couldn’t do it without me.”

They’ve made Ben’s well being their focal point while touching the lives of thousands of others dealing with autism who have benefited from the facility along with Ben. Ernie and Liezl could have just used their vast resources for Ben’s betterment, but instead they’ve built a legacy that will last longer and touch more lives in a more meaningful way than anything he ever achieved with a club in his hand. In doing so, he’s become everything Liezl envisioned he could be: a philanthropist, a humanitarian and even Golfweek’s Father of the Year.

Shanken said Ernie’s mission goes well beyond anything he ever contemplated in terms of making a difference.

“The rest of my life, I’ll be fighting this thing,” Ernie said.

It’s a mission he embraces and gives new meaning to his nickname, the Big Easy.

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