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Els discloses son has autism, seeks attention for research

Photo: Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

Ernie Els's son was diagnosed with autism, which Els and his wife coped with privately until the Big Easy showed up on the PGA Tour this week with an "Autism Speaks" logo on his golf bag and a message he wanted to get out.

PALM HARBOR, Fla. (AP) — For all the tough losses he has endured on the golf course the last few years, Ernie Els found perspective at home in the blue eyes of 5-year-old Ben.

His son was diagnosed with autism, which Els and his wife coped with privately until the Big Easy showed up on the PGA Tour this week with an "Autism Speaks" logo on his golf bag and a message he wanted to get out.

"I feel comfortable talking about it now," Els told The Associated Press after he missed the cut Friday in the PODS Championship. "I've got a bit of a profile where it will grab attention. That's what this problem needs. And with that, hopefully, more people will get involved and we can start getting to what causes it and what can be done to help it."

His son turned 5 in October, the youngest of two children, a big boy with blond hair and blue eyes.

"Ben is quite affected by it," Els said. "But he's a lovely boy."

Els, who won the Honda Classic last week to end an 0-for-47 drought on the PGA Tour that spanned 3 1/2 years, said he and wife Leizl have known about it for "quite a few years," and they have spoken to specialists around the world.

It was something they dealt with privately at home in London and in South Africa.

Samantha, 8, is their oldest child and she often accompanies her mother on the golf course for at least nine holes to watch Els play, sometimes bringing a sketch pad to draw the holes.

"It's been a bit of a challenge," Els said. "It's so new to everybody, that a lot of people have different ideas. After seeing just about everybody in the world, I decided on this path we're going to go.

"Like any family will tell you, it's not easy. And it's a change of life, a change of priorities. You've got to be ready for it. And it's happening more often. I never knew about it, never thought about it, until it's in your lap."

He contacted Autism Speaks and is preparing to raise money and awareness for the disorder, which impairs a person's ability to communicate and relate to others.

Bob Wright, co-founder of Autism Speaks in New York, was thrilled to have the 38-year-old South African speak out.

No other golfer touches so many corners of the world than Els, whose schedule routinely takes him to just about every continent where golf is played. Among his three major championships, Els has 60 official victories in Asia, Europe, Africa and America.

"It's very important having prominent people get out in front of this issue," Wright said. "It's hard to get people to do that. Having Ernie, somebody who is prominent all over the world, to get out here is immensely helpful."

Several celebrities who do not have autism in the family still donate time to the organization, such as Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Cosby and Jay Leno. NHL players Olaf Kolzig, Byron DaFoe and Scott Mellanby all have children with autism and founded Athletes Against Autism, which is part of Autism Speaks.

Wright said having Els involved would bring more people forward, something Els already has experienced. Cliff Kresge saw the Autism Speaks logo on the bag Friday and told him that his 8-year-old son, Mason, had autism.

"I was surprised to hear about Ernie," Kresge said. "In a way, though, we need someone of that stature to get some notice to this problem that we all have. There's so many people like that out there, and so little is being done. If they can find cures for cancer, surely they can find a cure for autism.

"Hopefully, with Ernie's notoriety, we can get to the bottom of this."

Autism is now part of Els' life.

Ben was born in October 2002, after a season in which Els captured his third major at the British Open and won the World Match Play Championship at Wentworth, his primary residence.

When they discovered he was autistic, Els did not share this publicly through some of his toughest years in golf — having a chance to win all four majors in 2004 and coming away empty; a tubing accident that tore knee ligaments and ended his season in July; and losing more duels with Tiger Woods, most recently at the Dubai Desert Classic.

"We've been taking our time and trying to assess what we need to do, what we want to do," Els said. "We're doing a lot for Ben. But there are a lot of kids like him out there, and worse than him. We're in a fortunate position where money is not a real problem for our family. We can get Ben the right help. Some people are not in the same position. We'd like to raise money for the poor.

"And I'd like to know why it's happening," he said. "It's gone crazy the last couple of years. It's an epidemic."

Els said he was stunned to learn from Autism Speaks that 1 in 150 children are diagnosed with autism, the rate even higher for boys. Wright said while not all countries are forthcoming with statistics, Britain has even higher rates.

Before speaking publicly, Els wanted to make sure his family was comfortable — not only his wife, but his daughter, best known in the United States for her PGA Tour commercial in which Els plays a math teacher adding the scores on a golf card, and Samantha (Sarah in the commercial) answers the question in her Afrikaans accent — "3 under paw."

"Samantha, she's been unbelievable with Ben," Els said. "She's like a mother figure, not a sister figure. I wanted her to feel comfortable, because obviously, this is going to get attention. We just feel more ready to deal with it now."

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