For Ernie Els, Doral week in 2002 must seem like a lifetime ago. On that Sunday he had an eight-shot lead. Then Tiger came on like an afternoon storm. Ernie would win, but only by two. Imagine, everybody said then, how devastating it would have been for Ernie had he not held on.
Four months after that victory Els won the third of his three majors, the British Open at Muirfield. Three months later his son, Ben, was born. It didn’t take long for Els and his wife, Liezl, to figure out that Ben was different. Like roughly one in 150 children born in the U.S., he’s autistic. Ever since, the Els family has taken the diagnosis and tried to turn it on its head.
After winning the CA Championship at Doral last week, Els talked about the 300-student special-needs school that he and Liezl are planning to build in South Florida, where they live. He talked about how he hoped that Ben “in another couple years” will understand what the victory at Doral means to his father. He talked about how Ben, now seven, likes to watch golf on TV. Not that long ago Ernie couldn’t talk about Ben’s condition in public. But you should have heard him last week.
It was a fine win, and Els played beautiful golf, shooting 18 under in a four-shot victory. But had he lost—to his young countryman, Sunday playing partner Charl Schwartzel, 25, of South Africa, or anyone else—would it have been devastating? Not a chance. Els has changed over the past eight years.
When Woods delivered his made-for-TV speech last month, he said one thing you could call profound: “I’ve heard it’s not what you achieve in life that matters, it’s what you overcome.”
We can only guess at what young Ben Els will have to overcome in his life. The obstacles in the life of his father are more public: How do you continue to play world-class golf when 40 has come and gone, when you don’t burn off the beer as easily as you once did, when the thing in life you most desperately want to fix is out of your hands? You could make the case that Ernie’s triumph on Sunday is his most important yet. Look at what he had to overcome.
In victory Els didn’t talk about going to Augusta looking for a W. He talked about trying to improve his golf between now and the Masters. It sounded like something out of the Tiger Woods playbook.
As for Tiger’s quote about obstacles, if you root around the Internet, you can find it attributed to various people. The Hall of Fame golfer Johnny Miller, for one. The Hall of Fame catcher Carlton Fisk, for another. Also Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founder of the Special Olympics, a woman who saw the real definition of achievement every day.
Els said on Sunday that his son just “loves being on the golf course with me.” What one father might take for granted can be a source of deep joy to another. It was always easy to root for Ernie. Now it’s even easier.