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For his autism work, Ernie Els is Golfweek’s Father of the Year

2024 Principal Charity Classic

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.

2024 Principal Charity Classic

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)



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