Voices that carry
Autism awareness for Ernie and Liezl Els began with their birth of son Ben. Here’s the story in their own words.
August 19, 2015
EDITOR'S NOTE: Ernie Els was also nominated for ESPN's Muhammad Ali Sports Humanitarian Award on June 14, 2017.
Ernie Els is this year’s recipient of The Payne Stewart Award presented by Southern Company, and it’s difficult to imagine a more worthy honoree. Beyond his success inside the ropes, Els has made an impact in many other ways – none more so that his involvement with Autism.
After learning that their son Ben was autistic, Ernie and his wife Liezl made it their mission statement to help people on the Autism spectrum disorder “fulfill their potential to lead positive, productive and rewarding lives.”
Using stories from various publications, here’s an oral history of the Els family and their involvement with Autism in the last dozen years.
Ernie and Liezl were married in 1998. A year later, daughter Samantha was born. On Oct. 6, 2002, Liezl gave birth to their second child, a son they named Ben. They were living in Wentworth, England at the time.
LIEZL: “He didn’t have to grow for us to know that there was something not quite right. Right from the start, he wasn’t like Samantha. But I think like an ostrich, I did try and hide with my head in the sand and pretend that nothing was wrong. Everyone tries to be nice around you. They would say, ‘No, boys are slow in developing. My son only did this and this at that age, and my son only did that.’ And I think you take comfort from that for a while, although in your heart you know right from the word ‘go’ that he is different.”
ERNIE: “He just was way off from where Samantha was. … Just the things that he was doing, and he was wriggling his hands like that, and if we spoke to him there was no response. He didn't walk until he was two years old; a lot of stuff was happening. We just thought, you know, maybe he's kind of a little slow in developing. We took him to numerous doctors, numerous tests, blood tests, all kinds of tests, and really was put under the Autism spectrum. And that was then in the UK.”
After Ernie and Liezl learned that Ben had Autism, they began asking questions and doing research – all the while wondering how their lives might change as they shuttled back and forth from their homes in England and South Africa. Ernie was coming off the best stretch of his career, in which he had won seven PGA TOUR events in three seasons, including his third major at the 2002 Open Championship. It was a stressful time.
ERNIE: “One in 88 children is affected by Autism and that was perhaps the most shocking thing about all of this -- the number of people it affects. It hits the whole family hard. For a long time you are trying to figure out ‘What just happened to my life?’ You feel sorry for yourself and for your kid and for your family. And the tragedy is that even in this day and age, the kid who has Autism is often forgotten about. The feeling is that he’s almost a waste of time, which says a lot more about society than it does the child. It’s heartbreaking.”
LIEZL: “I think I always knew I was going to have a child with special needs. I don’t know why. I don’t have anyone with special needs in my family. I just knew if anybody was going to get that challenge, I probably would. I’ve always said whatever happens, whatever kids are given to us, we will be given the strength to deal with it. I strongly believe in that. Always have and always will. When I look at our daily life, our family situation, and especially at Samantha, this beautiful little girl who is good at everything she puts her hands onto, she’s just a wonderful, all-around child. Then I look at Ben, and Ben was given to us to keep our lives in perspective. Ben does not get affected by your bank balance. Ben doesn’t care about how many cameras flash in your face. He’s there to keep you sane. I shudder to think, really, what we would be like without Ben because of this fool’s paradise we live in. He comes to set the record straight. He’s the reality check. He’s so real and so true and so honest and so funny. He helps us to understand what’s really important and what life is really about.”
ERNIE: “For some reason, as a father, you feel guilty. I don’t know why the hell that is. But you just feel basically sorry for your kid -- and for yourself in a way. You’re thinking, ‘Why in the hell did this happen to my kid? Why does he have to deal with this for the rest of his life?’”
LIEZL: “It’s tougher for a man, I think, to overcome this sort of thing. As a woman, I was willing to hide part of my emotion. I felt, This is my child, I’m responsible for this child, and this child will grow up eventually. Ernie wanted to know why. What did we do wrong? What can we change? How are we going to cure him? People out there who think it didn’t affect us as a couple, that everything was all right -- that’s not true. It did affect us. We had to work doubly hard to remember that we love one another, and that we didn’t do anything to bring on Ben’s Autism. We had Samantha to think about, too. You can’t just go underground and hide because of one child. Your responsibility as a parent is for the family -- all four of us.”
ERNIE: “I met a family in South Africa who raised their kid who is autistic, the kid is 30 years old now. When we go on vacation in South Africa, he's always on the beach, he's a golf nut, loves playing golf, so I started playing golf with him and speaking to his parents, just finding out more about how they raised him and what they did. That helped a lot.”
Ben was 5 years old when Ernie and Liezl decided to move the family to Florida in 2008. They had found an elementary school in Seminole County that offered programs to work with autistic children, and were hoping to enroll Ben that fall. It was a big move from their home in England.
ERNIE: “We always had these arguments about which way we were going to go. Do we stay in England? Do we move to America? What is really wrong with Ben? The clashes could be quite, um, quite good. At the end of the day, what matters is that we have tremendous love for each other, and for Ben… I can’t say there’s an exact time when we said, ‘OK, we’re on the same page.’ It was gradual, it took years, but we healed as a couple; we got closer as a couple. When you work together, it’s amazing how far you can get, and how quickly.”
LIEZL: “I was talking to him so much about how we needed to be in the country that was leading the way in treating Autism. Over and over again, I said, ‘America this, America that’ … His head must have been spinning!”
ERNIE: “In the U.S., they're so far way ahead of the rest of the world. That's a huge factor why we made this move, to really give him the best treatment that we can get and move from there. … We're doing a lot for Ben. But there are a lot of kids like him out there, and worse than him. We're in a fortunate position where money is not a real problem for our family. We can get Ben the right help. Some people are not in the same position. We'd like to raise money for the poor.”
LIEZL: “We moved to America specifically for the schooling. Florida was always going to be our No. 1 choice, and we have an existing network of friends and colleagues down in this area. Of course we lived in Orlando prior, but this area has always been close to our hearts.”
Around that same time in early March, 2008, Els won The Honda Classic in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. Although he had been winning other events around the world, it was his first win in four years on the PGA TOUR. The very next week, Els played in the then-PODS Championship (now Valspar Championship) across the state in Palm Harbor. He missed the cut but used the opportunity to speak publicly about Ben’s Autism for the first time.
ERNIE: “I put the Autism logo on my golf bag, and obviously when I did that, I got a lot of questions. I did an interview with (Golf Channel’s) Rich Lerner off camera, and then he mentioned it on television at one of the tournaments, I can't remember where, and I can't tell you how many emails we got. … The emails I got were from parents -- especially from the dads, where they said that they were really happy that a man is talking out about it, speaking out about it, because it seems like the men in the relationships have been very quiet and kind of withdrawn from it because you don't want anybody to know about your situation, which is normal, because we're all proud people and you don't want your problems out in public. But I just felt that I can help people and I can help them feel better about their situations.”
LIEZL: “I have to admit that Ernie was the one who decided to go as public as we did … We had a conversation, and he said to me, ‘I think the time is right for us to openly talk about this.’ We never knew what a big impact that would have, especially the fact that it was Ernie talking about it. It affected so many males out there. The letters, the phone calls, the e-mails we got, even the responses I got just walking along the golf course from men who came up saying that I had no idea what it meant to them that Ernie spoke about this and shared his pain and the time it took for him to get over this. That made it all worthwhile.”
ERNIE: “I spoke to my wife obviously, and I really wanted everybody to feel comfortable with it, feel comfortable coming forward talking about it, not only myself but Liezl and then Samantha.”
LIEZL: “From that point, our life became completely crazy. It was like it was someone else’s life. There was a little bit of negative with questions about why we didn’t come out earlier. Why were we doing it now? It was like it was the first moment that Ernie and I realized that our son had something different about him. You can’t blame people. Everyone is so passionate about their kids and the help they’ve given their children. You just have to say, this is how we handle it.”
ERNIE: “Things happen in life, and you've got to be more prepared when it happens. Hopefully speaking out and helping the awareness and really getting to the research of why Autism happens to kids, maybe we can get people more … ready for it than other people have been.”
LIEZL: “We thought it was going to be a way for us to make life easier for Ben, and for us as a family. But immediately after Ernie went public with it, there were all of these people writing to us and talking about it, coming up to us on the golf course. I’d be walking along in the gallery at a tournament, following Ernie, and I can’t tell you how many people approached me. Men -- it was mostly men. They said, ‘Thank you so much. And, please, thank Ernie. I couldn’t talk about this. It has had a huge effect on me as a husband, as a father, as a person. It’s been really, really hard for me. Thank you.’”
CLIFF KRESGE, who, after seeing the Autism logo on Ernie’s bag, told the golfer he also had a son with Autism: “I was surprised to hear about Ernie. In a way, though, we need someone of that stature to get some notice to this problem that we all have. There's so many people like that out there, and so little is being done. If they can find cures for cancer, surely they can find a cure for autism. Hopefully, with Ernie's notoriety, we can get to the bottom of this."
LIEZL: “It was tough, just the madness. If you have to compare it to anything, it’s like winning a major. That madness that follows. It was similar to the madness of winning a major. The positives from it far, far outweighed the negatives, though. And in the beginning, I was the scared one. Should we? Shouldn’t we? I was still wanting to hide. Now I guess I’m leading the charge. Parents, charity, media. They wanted Ernie’s time all of a sudden, and they just didn’t want our time, they wanted the kids’ time, too. We knew that was going to happen, but we’re so fiercely protective of our children at the same time. We live a public life every day, so it’s weird. We are trying to protect the family, which is always the main concern and has always stayed the focus. But we want to give a little bit to help other people, and that is not a big suffering. That has to be said.”
ERNIE: “Ben’s condition was on my mind for years. As a golfer, being up there with the big boys, near the top, it’s pretty tough. I felt I needed to get it off of my back, and to get it off of the family’s back. Ben was not going to be 2 years old forever. I wanted him to interact with everyone on TOUR.”
BOB WRIGHT, co-founder of Autism Speaks: "It's very important having prominent people get out in front of this issue. It's hard to get people to do that. Having Ernie, somebody who is prominent all over the world, to get out here is immensely helpful."
ERNIE: “When we went public, we got so many letters and e-mails from people saying thank you. Although Liezl and I had our own problems, can you imagine the guy who doesn’t have this [gestures to his library, its soaring ceilings, and down the long, wide hallway through the open door behind him]. We have a teacher for Ben. We have all the space in the world. I don’t have a nine-to-five job. I have weeks off where I can spend time with Ben. Can you imagine guys who don’t have that? Those are the people who I really feel for, to be honest with you. Those are the people I want to help. They are really going through a hell of a time.”
Now that Ernie and his family had become a public face for Autism, they started thinking about the next step. Speaking about it was one thing. What more could they do? In the spring of 2009, Els created the Els for Autism Foundation. The big goal was to create a Center of Excellence that would be a game-changing resource in the field of Autism. Money needed to be raised, and so Els created the Golf Challenge, a series of regional events to benefit the Foundation. Meanwhile, Liezl held an annual tea party, hosting 250 women at the Els home in Florida. Eventually, ground was broken on the Center in March, 2014.
Two days ago – Monday, Aug. 17, 2015 -- the first two components of the $35 million Center of Excellence (the Lower School and the Auditorium Building) were officially opened in Jupiter, Florida, just in time for the start of the 2015-16 school year. Smiles and tears of joy were both in abundance at the grand opening.
ERNIE: "This dream has been in the pipeline since 2009 so to have the kids walk through the doors this morning for the first time was literally a dream come true. It’s a special day and one that we have only reached thanks to the collective support of a huge number of individuals and organizations. Whether people have donated $1 or $1 million, everyone who has supported us has been a building block for this Center."
LIEZL: “There is some wonderful, wonderful work being done research-wise out there, at the moment, and there are millions and millions of dollars being spent on it. But a much smaller proportion is being spent on the schooling of the kids. We really strongly thought we needed to put it into the school. We came up with a new idea. Why don’t we do the school and do a research facility? From there, we started talking, and it grew and grew and grew and it ended up being a $30 million-plus project.”
ERNIE: “Six years now, of fund-raising, awareness, planning, eventually building. We’ve got a long way to go still. We want to do the high school, we want to do the track and field back in the corner (of the property). I’m doing a little par-3 golf course in the back, that’ll be done in the next five weeks. My wife deserves all the credit. She’s worked really hard.”
LIEZL: “If people see something working, and it’s successful and not that hard to do, then people will be much more willing to be involved in the next project. That’s our aim -- not just to build this one, but in Africa and throughout the rest of the world.”
ERNIE: “It’s a dream come true … We just want to show people what a school for Autistic kids should look like.”
Quotes used in this story originally appeared in stories by the Associated Press, Palm Beach Post, Parade Magazine and Yahoo Sports. In addition, Laury Livsey of the PGA TOUR contributed to this report.