EVERETT, Mass. – When student speaker Anthony Adelizzi talked about how he coped with his autism at the annual Francis Ouimet Scholarship Fund banquet Monday night, Ernie and Liezl Els listened with great interest while sitting nearby.
Adelizzi’s message hit close to home for them. Liezl shed a few tears when Adelizzi mentioned that he had been ridiculed and bullied because he was different from others, but she and her husband applauded when he spoke about working in outside operations at Hyannisport Club and attaining his goal of being accepted into the esteemed PGA Golf Management program at Methodist University in North Carolina. When Adelizzi finished speaking, Ernie and Leizl both hugged him.
Els, 53, has earned 75 professional victories and was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2011, but he is even more proud of The Els for Autism Foundation he and his wife founded in 2009 and The Els Center of Excellence, two charter schools in Florida on a 26-acre campus for 300 children with leading edge programs and services for individuals with autism. An adult services center is scheduled to open June 6.
“I’d love for Anthony to come and check it out,” Els said, “when you have a chance. We feel like we have a world class facility.”
Ernie and Liezl were motivated to help because their 20-year-old son, Ben, has autism.
Els, the South African native who won two U.S. Opens and two British Opens and was once ranked No. 1 in the world, received the Francis Ouimet Award for “Lifetime contributions to golf.” While being interviewed on stage by master of ceremonies Dave Marr, Els informed the audience of nearly 1,500 people at Encore Boston Harbor that he at first tried to force Ben to attend the same school in England as Ben’s older sister Samantha for a couple of years, but that his son “despised” it. The 6-foot-3 Els is known as the “Big Easy” because of his height, fluid golf swing and easy-going nature, but nothing came easy to Ben.
Finally, Ernie and Liezl decided to give Ben the specialized schooling that he wanted and needed. He thrived. So they decided to help others thrive by raising $50 million and opening the Els Center for Excellence. The executive director of the center was in the audience Monday night.
“What I put him through in England for those two years,” Els said of his son, “I didn’t feel good about what went on. I kind of blame myself for some of the stuff. Now to look back and to see how my relationship with Ben is, it’s fantastic. We’re best of friends. He loves golf. He’s not very athletic, but he loves coming to the golf course and being outdoors. He loves people.”
Els credited Liezl for being the driving force behind the center and he thanked Samantha for being so understanding of the time the family needed to spend with Ben and raising funds. Samantha even told her parents that she’s looking forward to looking after Ben when her parents no longer can.
Els pointed out that autistic individuals can be louder and more active than others so people look at them differently. They can feel more at ease at the Els Center.
“We do all different kinds of activities,” he said. “They’re kids and they can be themselves.”
Els said he wants to eventually hold the Special Olympics at his center.
Raising $50 million for his center reminded Els about the generosity of Americans.
“We’ve lived in the U.K., we’ve lived in South Africa,” he said. “I’ve been to many places, but the United States of America, the way you guys raise money and give back, there is nobody near you guys and I believe that is why this is such a great country.”
It’s a country where Els has made his home in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, and where he carded his 75th career victory on March 19 in Newport Beach, California, at the PGA Tour Champions Hoag Classic.
The Ouimet banquet is the largest golf banquet in the world and raises funds for need-based college scholarships for men and women who work at golf clubs in Massachusetts. With Eddie Lowery as his caddie, Francis Ouimet is credited with popularizing golf in the U.S. by defeating heavily favored British golfers Harry Vardon and Ted Ray in a playoff to win the 1913 U.S. Open as an amateur at The Country Club in Brookline where he used to caddie.
Since 1949, the Ouimet Fund has awarded over $46 million in scholarships to more than 6,470 men and women. The scholarships are renewable and worth an average of $30,000 over four years with some totaling up to $80,000.
“There’s such a great story behind it,” Els said. “Eddie Lowery and Francis Ouimet doing what they did back in 1913 and here we are 100 and something years later and that story still continues.”
Els followed such previous Ouimet honorees as Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman, Gary Player, Tom Watson, President George Bush, Jim Nantz and Annika Sorenstam.
Susan J. Curtin received the Richard F. Connolly, Jr. Award for Distinguished Service. She serves on several boards, including the Ouimet Fund, Golf Fights Cancer, the executive committee for Mass Golf and Boston Children’s Hospital Trust. She is also a trustee at her alma mater of Holy Cross. A founding member of Boston Golf Club in Hingham, she helped launch the John D. Mineck Memorial Foundation and the Mineck Endowed Scholarship at Ouimet. She also competes in Mass Golf and USGA events.
(PHOTO CREDIT: Nicki Pardo)