An Irishman does it

Autism's loss, too: Ernie Els doesn't get the U.S. Open win his cause deserves

Autism's loss, too: Ernie Els doesn't get the U.S. Open win his cause deserves

If you know anything about Ernie Els, you couldn't help but root for his bunker shot on 18 to bounce into the cup for an eagle — one that would have shook Pebble Beach to its ocean floor.

No one said life or U.S. Opens — especially one poorly setup by the United States Golf Association — are fair though. So Els' shot rolled on by and with the 40-year-old South African's last chance at a miracle gone, Graeme McDowell won golf's second major championship of the year.

So Els comes close (finishing third) for the second straight U.S, Open and his chances of ever winning a third Open (to go with the silver chalices he collected in 1994 and 1997) seem more and more remote. It's shame too, because now that he's approaching the twilight of his golf career, Els is playing for more than ever.

His 7-year-old son Ben has autism — and after wresting with the idea of whether to go public with that for several years — Els and his wife Liezl have turned his last few seasons into a cause that goes beyond collecting more zeroes for the bank account and more hardware for the trophy case. The Els established a foundation that aims to set up an educational center for autistic kids aged 3 to 21.

Ernie has been playing with an Autism Speaks sticker on his golf bag and an athlete previously most known for his undying love for his own private jet (Els was a pioneer as far as jetting around the globe to any tournament that was paying big money anywhere) has done something of a 180.

"We're in a fortunate position where money is not a real problem for our family," Els said. "We can get Ben the right help. Some people are not in the same position. We'd like to raise money for the poor."

Els was always one of the better dads on the PGA Tour. When I was covering a tournament in Arizona, Els went out of his way to make sure that his then 8-year-old daughter Samantha saw the Grand Canyon — while a host of other pros left the child care to their nannies as usual. It would have been great to see this father rewarded with one more major championship moment on Father's Day.

An Els' win would have also brought more attention to one of the most frightening health crises in the world. Autism rates have skyrocketed, to the point now where one in 150 kids gets diagnosed with the puzzling disorder and it's even more common among boys. If you're a parent or thinking about becoming a parent, it's impossible not to be shaken by those stats.

The man long ago nicknamed the Big Easy has become more and more open with his own son's story, writing on his website, "With Ben we started thinking: ‘Why is he not crawling? Why is he not walking? Why is he not looking me in the eye?’ Things like that. We soon discovered he was quite severely touched by Autism."

Els continues to touch others with his family's story — in ways that he never did when he was young and it seemed like the big wins would never stop. That should continue whether he ever regains his touch on the greens again or not.

A Pebble Beach moment would have been momentous though — not only for Els, but for autism too.

News_Ernie Els_golfer_golf
Ernie Els is swinging for more than himself now.
News_Shelby_Pebble Beach_trophy
Els won't be hoisting the U.S. Open trophy for a third time. Photo by Dan Pickering
Autism Poster
Autism would have received another round of needed supersized publicity if Els had captured the year's second major.