The big question coming into today’s opening round of the Masters is which golfer will win. With Tiger in a decided slump, it’s been years since the field has been this wide open. Even Vegas can’t decide who the favorite is. Ultimately, Phil Mickelson is the man to beat at 13:2, though, statistically speaking, several other golfers have a legitimate shot to win.
But this year, I’m not rooting for a golfer. I’m rooting for a father, one who is 100% dedicated to his family, including his 8-year-old son who was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder in 2006.
There’s an article on ESPN.com today that will give any loving parent chills. It’s about that dad I’m rooting for, Ernie Els. And as the piece notes, each day, Ernie hears from his fraternity of dads—those who have children on the autism spectrum. Like this one:
I too have a son on the Autism spectrum … I could really empathize with the situation you spoke about — the hurt, the anguish … I get so much pleasure out of my son Joey. He is an amazing kid, as I am sure Ben is as well. I just want to thank you for doing what you do and showing people they don’t have to be scared if they are in the situation we both found ourselves in.
Els’ nickname on the tour is the Big Easy, a moniker he earned both for his golf swing as well as his laid back demeanor. But that mellow disposition didn’t mean that Els is open with his private life. He isn’t. Or at least wasn’t. But when he learned his son Ben was on the autism spectrum, everything changed.
“It’s a very private thing, a very under-the-table thing,” Els told ESPN. “The husbands, the dads take it very badly in a way. I’ve seen it … I think people are very selfish. I was selfish. If I had a boy, I said we’d do that sport or this sport. He’d go fishing with me. Well, you can still do that, just in a different light.”
In fact, his entire life was suddenly cast in a different light. Despite the fact that there is a “very private” component to the complicated feelings that accompany parenting an autistic child, Els knew he was in a position to make a difference. Accordingly, the once private man is now very vocal and outgoing when it came to his son and his life with autism, as evidenced by the email above.
Through charitable golfing events, as well as his own personal fundraising efforts (along with wife, Liezl, of course), Els has raised nearly $9 million of the $30 million it will take to erect the Els Center of Excellence facility. The center will be built in Palm Beach, FL and will focus on autism spectrum therapy as well as autism-related research.
ESPN pointed out that Els didn’t have to do this. After all, the man has more than enough means to take care of Ben for the rest of his life. But Els wants to do this. And reading some of his quotes in the ESPN story will tell you why. Despite the millions, Ernie Els recognizes that he’s just like the rest of us other dads in the world who love their children to bits.
“Fathers come to me, talk to me about their autistic kids. I don’t want to sound like the father figure of this thing, but they have someone sort of famous who they can talk to in a different way. There’s so much pain and hurt going on. You can’t talk to a psychologist about it because they don’t understand. But when you speak to another father of an autistic child, you speak the truth.”
It’s a father’s love as well as a father’s empathy which has compelled Ernie Els to parlay his unique status into becoming a driving force for autism awareness. And what better way to do just that than by winning his sport’s most prestigious tournament which just happens to be held during Autism Awareness Month?
I’ve always liked Ernie the golfer, but I flat out love Ernie the father. And that’s who I’m rooting for to win this year’s green jacket.