Ernie Els’ success on PGA Tour Champions also a victory for his autism foundation

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BOCA RATON, Fla. — Life on the other side of 50 has been rewarding for Ernie Els.

The Juno Beach, Florida resident has found new life on the golf course, enjoying the less intense but still-competitive world of the Tour Champions. He loves working on his game, playing with 50- and 60-somethings in much more relaxed environments, and visiting courses he never saw during his nearly three decades on the PGA Tour.

“Age is a different thing,” Els said Thursday, ahead of Friday’s opening round of the TimberTech Championship at Broken Sound.

“Priorities change whether it’s family or business. And then you’re not playing the way you used to play, that can get on your nerves a little bit. Then you’re seeing (young) guys coming through, the game-changing. I don’t want to say you feel like you’ve been left behind, but it’s tough to really play at that top level for a very long period of time.”

Els, 52, is back to the top-level now, finding that Fountain of Youth on the 50-and-older circuit. He enters the TimberTech, the second event of the Charles Schwab Cup, third in the standings behind Bernhard Langer of Boca Raton, Florida, and Jim Furyk. The three are grouped for Friday’s first round, teeing off on the Old Course at 9:02 a.m.

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But now, Els is playing for more than his legacy. Each time he shows up on a leaderboard and is afforded time in front of cameras and microphones, it’s not about promoting his brand, but promoting a cause so personal, and near and dear to his heart.

Els for Autism Foundation passion for golfer, wife

The Els for Autism Foundation continues to be a passion for Els and his wife, Liezl. The couple founded the Els Center of Excellence, two charter schools located on a 26-acre campus in Jupiter, Florida specifically designed to create a learning environment for children on the spectrum.

But Els is not just a founder and member of the board; he also is involved as a dad. The Els’ 19-year-old son, Ben, has autism and Els often wears his dad hat, picking up Ben or sitting in on his yoga class.

“It’s really nice to have him on campus as a dad and as the founder of the organization,” said Marlene Sotelo, the foundation’s executive director.

The foundation held the grand finale for its golf challenge series last weekend with rounds being played at PGA National and the Loxahatchee Club and the gala at the Pelican Club. More than $3.1 million was raised in 2021, bringing the total raised since the start of golf challenge to more than $29.4 million. The funds go toward the Els for Autism Foundation to support programs and services at the center.

Ernie Els talks to participants in a charity golf clinic presented by Jack Nicklaus, Annika Sorenstam and Els at PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens Monday, October 4, 2021.

Prolonging his career by playing 34 events since joining Tour Champions in 2020, finishing in the top 10 in half of those, with wins at the Hoag Classic in Newport Beach, California, and SAS Championship in Cary, North Carolina, has given Els an opportunity to bring more awareness to his foundation.

Prior to joining the Tour Champions, Els had not had a top 10 finish on PGA Tour since 2016 and his last win was the 2012 British Open. That was his second Claret Jug and fourth major among his 74 professional worldwide career victories, 19 on the PGA Tour.

“The platform that we’ve used has been golf,” Els said about promoting the foundation. “My stature in the game, whatever you want to call that, it’s really helped us not only in business but definitely in charity work. This tour has really sustained that for me.

“So for me, (it’s) to keep playing good, stay out there. People love to identify you still as a golfer.”

Getting word out during COVID was important

And at a time when charitable events around the globe were canceled leading to a decline in donations because of a worldwide coronavirus pandemic, getting out the word and promoting causes was as important as ever.

“He’s so passionate about helping people with autism,” Sotelo said. “He’s always talking about autism and bringing awareness to the foundation, and about the abilities of people with autism.”

On Thursday, Tour Champions’ wives were invited by Els and Liezl to tour the Center of Excellence campus. They then went to the Els’ home where Liezl hosted a brunch.

“They’re going to have some fun,” Ernie said Thursday. “I’m sure when I get home tonight, might have to kick some of them out of the house, who knows.”

On Friday, Els will join his marquee grouping for the first round with the Charles Schwab Cup possibly on the line. The top 36 in the standings after TimberTech will move on to the championship next weekend in Phoenix.

But for Els, every tournament, every swing, every eyeball on his game means much more than validating his Hall of Fame golf career.