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The ‘Lovely Innocence’ Of Ben Els

While Ernie Els was coming down the stretch at Royal Lytham & St. Annes last year, his wife, Liezl, along with various friends and family members, was watching the denouement from Els’ home at Wentworth in England. Samantha, the couple’s older child, was glued to the television along with the adults. As for the then-9-year-old Ben, he was in and out of the swimming pool between answering calls to watch his father’s putts. Ben had picked up on that crazy phrase, “Get in the hole!” and, that day, there were plenty of balls that responded to his cries. And none more resoundingly so than that 15-footer which bolted for home on the 18th green. When, finally, Els was holding the Claret Jug aloft, things went mad. Phones were ringing all over the house and everyone was screaming. Everyone, that is, except Ben. He was frightened. Ben, as everyone in the golfing world now knows, has autism. “He doesn’t comprehend winning or losing,” explains Leizl. She says it fondly rather than sadly because this particular aspect of their son’s condition can be a wonderful thing in an environment where so much importance is attached to results. Ben neither knows nor cares what Ernie has shot and Ernie reacts accordingly. The child’s face lights up the moment his father walks through the door. “Ernie,” says Liezl, “is always a hero to him.” Liezl will tell you that they knew something was not quite right long before they were given the autism diagnosis in 2008. “Initially,” she says, “you ask yourselves, ‘Why us?’ but those days are long gone. More and more, we see Ben and his lovely innocence as a blessing.” Ernie’s natural inclination was to keep the details of Ben’s condition bottled up – a state of affairs which may or may not have contributed to a loss of golfing form. Liezl never at any stage encouraged him to go public with the news, the reason being that she knew it was something he had to do in his own time. “It was always tougher for Ernie,” she maintains. “He’s been sports-oriented all his life and, like every other sports-mad father, he wanted a son who would share in his interests.” When he eventually decided to let go, it turned out to be a classic case of a problem shared being a problem halved. “It took the weight off his shoulders,” says his wife. “People who had an autistic child themselves would come up and thank us. They would say that we had made it easier for them to cope. “There were some who had felt that they were in some way responsible for their child’s autism when, of course, no one knows what prompts the condition. It could be genetic; it could be the environment. “Acceptance,” she continued, “is what really matters, because that’s what makes it easier for kids like Ben to live in this world.” The Els family’s decision to base themselves in America – they moved there in 2009 – was based largely on the advanced treatment which was at that stage on offer for autistic children in the States. But the move also made sense in other ways: for Ernie, because he needed better weather for off-season practice, and for Samantha because she was missing too many terms from her Surrey school. Much though the family still love Wentworth – they will be there for most of the summer holidays – the move has been a complete success. As, indeed, has Ernie’s Els for Autism foundation that is building a centre to embrace everything it takes to improve the lot of Ben and others like him. Ben appreciates Ernie’s golf in a different way than the rest of us. He is interested in his father’s putting and his driving – and nothing between the two.


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