Ernie Els knew something was different with his son, almost from the start. Ben didn't crawl as soon as other kids his age did. He didn't walk as soon. He didn't react fully when his parents talked to him.
But like a lot of parents, Ernie and his wife Liezl thought — hoped, maybe — that it was something Ben eventually would grow out of, that the behavior was temporary, that he simply was a slow developer.
Ernie and Liezl took Ben to doctors for tests and more tests. There was confusion. There was anger. When Ben finally was diagnosed with autism at age 3 in 2005, there was shock, too.
It wasn't until Ben was 6 years old that Els — a professional golfer from South Africa known in golfing circles as "The Big Easy" — finally opened up about his family's struggles dealing with autism. That was in 2008, when he appeared at a PGA Tour event with an "Autism Speaks" emblem on his golf bag.
"Myself and Liezl, it took us quite a while to actually have the courage and talk about it," Ernie said a few years later. "We kind of found our way with Ben. We’re still learning."
Since 2008, Ernie and Liezl have used their fame to educate others and to help raise money for autism research. In 2009, they established the Els For Autism foundation, which has raised millions of dollars helping people with autism "fulfill their potential to lead positive, productive and rewarding lives ..."
And last month in South Florida, they opened the first buildings at the Els Center of Excellence, a 26-acre facility in Jupiter that will eventually include schools for both older and younger people with autism, recreational facilities, a cafeteria and medical and professional buildings. The aim of the $30 million facility is to bring together the various elements of treating those on the autism spectrum — early intervention, recreation, research, adult services and more — at one state-of-the-art facility that will foster knowledge and understanding and serve as an example for how the disease should be treated worldwide.
"We wanted to build a facility where these kids could realize their potential," Liezl said at the opening, "and so that we could show the world just what our kids are made of, how strong they are, how talented they are and how far they can really go in life and what a massive contribution they can make to society."
The PGA Tour and Southern Company will recognize Ernie's valuable contributions to autism awareness and treatment with the prestigious Payne Stewart Award, presented annually to the player who exemplifies the character and charity that Stewart showed while a member of the Tour. (The award is named after Stewart, an 11-time winner on Tour, who was just 42 years old when he was killed in a plane accident in 1999.) The award comes with a $500,000 grant from Southern Company; $200,000 for Stewart-driven charities and $300,000 for Els' charities, including Els for Autism.
"Ernie's commitment and leadership in serving others align with our company's values and honors Payne Stewart’s enduring legacy," Southern Company Chairman Tom Fanning said in a release.
Els will be in Atlanta to accept the award on Sept. 22 at the TOUR Championship by Coca-Cola.
"We have to believe that anything is possible, and that it is possible to find a cure. We will find a way of a better life for kids and families living with autism," Els has said. "I don't know if one day I'm going to be remembered as a golfer, or a guy that's actually taken autism to the public. I like the latter."