Ernie Els has won four major championships in his illustrious career, by making a difficult game look easy. He has designed golf courses around the world and his wines are at the top of the list of big name golf players’ winemaking. He will always be known as a Hall of Famer who played the game around the globe and felt strongly that golf is an endeavor connecting the world.
Add this to his legacy, and perhaps place it right up there in terms of importance.
The Els Center of Excellence, driven by the Els for Autism Foundation, is a state-of-the-art facility supporting the local autism community in Jupiter, Florida. Having opened in August 2015, the 26 acre public center serves everyone from 18-month old children to adults with autism spectrum disorder, a wide range of developmental disabilities. Ernie and his wife LIezl, have a 14-year-old son, Ben, who is a freshman in the upper school portion of the facility.
The center is pure inspiration, a reason to smile and a beacon of hope for those impacted by the challenges of autism. To simply refer to the campus as impressive or game-changing would not do it justice.
“Years from now, people may remember me as a golfer and a major champion,” Ernie said. “But I would like to also to be remembered as somebody who took the issue of autism and did something about it. The rest of my life I’ll be fighting this thing.” Walking inside the Center of Excellence, you quickly understand why it is one of autism’s greatest fighters. “When your child is first diagnosed, you are afraid and not very hopeful, but with the right support, you come to realize the very special gifts that your child can bring to your family and the community,” says the Big Easy.
In one wing sits a 305-seat auditorium where plays can be staged, staff offices for many of the faculty’s 35 employees, and spaces to conduct therapy sessions. There is a school on each side- a lower school for ages 3-14 and an upper school for 14-21, and each are non-profit, tuition-free charter schools that can serve up to 150 students each. Rickie Fowler’s hole-in-one during an Els for Autism pro-am in March 2016 provided $1 million to the foundation, enabling the high school to be ready for the upcoming school year in fall 2016.
Golf plays a vital role in Els for Autism, not just from a fundraising standpoint- the foundation’s Golf Challenge will have 16 tournaments this year- but also because Ernie designed a nine -hole artificial turf course with three greens on campus. Research continues to show that recreational activities play a critical role in the success of those with autism, giving all the more reason for students to get outside and make some swings. Ernie collaborated with The First Tee and PGA REACH to develop a special instruction program for children and adults on the autism spectrum to learn the game in a way that suits their specific needs.
“If you ask any of the kids, they know which side of the ball to stand on,” said Jen Hong, the Golf Challenge development manager. “That’s pretty impressive to see.”
To contribute or learn more you can go to ElsForAutism.org.