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August 19, 2015

Ernie Els

Chris Womack

THE MODERATOR: Thank you, first off, congratulations to Mr.Ernie Els for winning this year's Mr.Payne Stewart Award. We have on the line Ernie and also Chris Womack of the Southern Company, at this time, Mr.Womack, I'll turn it over to you and then we can fire away some questions.
CHRIS WOMACK: Yeah, again, let me extend congratulations to Ernie Els for being the 2015 recipient of the Payne Stewart Award. We were so pleased to make that announcement almost an hour ago on Golf Channel with Morning Drive. But we think over the years of making this award, Ernie is another wonderful recipient along the lines of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Byron Nelson, Kenny Perry, Steve Stricker, Peter Jacobsen, just so many wonderful golfers that have been great golfers and also great citizens and great ambassadors for the game.
So on behalf of Southern Company, we are so pleased to join with the PGA TOUR, and the PGA, and with everybody else to congratulate and make this award for Ernie Els.
ERNIE ELS: Thank you very much, Chris. I just want to thank the Southern Company and the PGA TOUR for this great honor. I've been around the TOUR Championship when some of the other recipients have gotten their awards and made their talks and their speeches, and I was really struck by how touched all these guys were, you know, because Payne Stewart, the Payne Stewart Award, especially when you knew the man Payne Stewart, and the unfortunate way that Payne left us, really leaves you with a little bit of heartache. Us older generation who grew up with Payne, played golf with Payne, and now receiving the Payne Stewart Award, it's very humbling and it's a great honor.
So for what the Southern Company stands for and what these players who have received this award stands for, it's great to be in that kind of company. So for me it really is a big thank you, and I can't wait to make my little speech when I see you guys again.
THE MODERATOR: That's great. I've got a few members of the media here to ask questions.

Q. Ernie, you touched on Payne and his legacy in this game and obviously this award reflects that. Early in your career, obviously, everybody wants to win major championships, but at the end of it to have an award like this, which do you kind of cherish and associate with Payne? [INAUDIBLE] it's a little bit of a feather in the cap for somebody's career as well.
ERNIE ELS: Yeah, thank you very much. This is a serious feather in the cap. This is really kind of more what you do in life, I guess. I know these guys are great champions who have received this but somehow giving something back, you know. For myself and my family it's been an easy way to give back, because we're affected by autism in our family, and then learning things about autism through the years, you learn how many people are affected by it.
So, firstly, we wanted to help our own son, and then as it will be, we just built a school that accepts kids so other people are also going to be benefiting from it, so that's the most wonderful thing in the world. But we could not have done this without support from the community and from nationwide fundraising.
So I'm thanking the whole of the United States of America. We are South Africans living in the U.S., and to be able to do what we're doing, we could not have done it without their help [INAUDIBLE]. So it's a big thank you to them. We stand to fight autism with our family and to get an award like this is really it's the help from other people, it's really very humbling.

Q. I wonder what you've learned about autism maybe now that you know that you didn't know ten years ago or so? Or which direction it's going?
ERNIE ELS: Well, autism it affects people in different ways. It's the same kind of neurologic defect that you have in the brain, but it's different in cases. Like my son, Ben, his speech, he's quite slow. He's almost 13 years old, and he can say certain words, we can communicate with him because we know how he speaks, but normal people on the street wouldn't be able to understand what he's trying to get across. Then you have his best friend, Zack, who goes to school with him in the same class, he made a little speech for us on Monday, so his speech is much better than Ben's, but then he suffers from other things in life a little bit different than Ben does.
It's kind of all over the place, but I feel that we understand autism, autistic people better because we've been living with it with Ben for 12 years, since he was born. People have kids and come to us and ask us what should I do? And each case is different. So you've got to kind of learn and see what the kid is all about and take the case from there.
But I think through the years education has become a lot better, and I think the school that we built is purposely built for autistic kids. Like windows, the windows are different levels because the kids, they just want to stare out of the window. Some of them come into the class and they can look into the window, but when they sit down they can't see through the windows, so just to keep their attention.
We have a lot of movies that we can play for them, and each and every class has an observation little room where you can look through a mirror and see what's going on in the class without them seeing you. It was purposely built for autistic kids.

Q. The school went open the other day, and it was basically full, correct? You have a waiting list, and it's gone to a lottery system. I guess, several different factors in that. I mean it's maybe not surprising, but a bit concerning that there is that much need for it. Do you think this is an issue that people are still slowly coming around to that there is a need for more schools like this? How challenging was it to convince people that this is something we need to do?
ERNIE ELS: It wasn't challenging at all in that regard because we knew that what we were busy with here was going to be superior to anything, because obviously, as I say, we've gone through the system a little bit and we've seen what it's all about. And in the U.S. the schools you have here for autistic kids are far and above, better than anything in the world. But we still felt that we really built purposely built for autistic kids.
A lot of schools used for autism are buildings that are not used anymore and then those spaces get taken up through schools for autism. So nothing has really been built, purposely built for autistic kids, so we hope that this one is going to be the start and will become the absolute normal for kids with autism. I believe people who want to build these kind of schools will come to our facility and come see what it's all about and build many, many facilities of this kind around the world because there is a need around the world. I mean, we're only touching.
You can imagine what's going on in Asia and the rest of the world, it's mind‑boggling. One in every 62 boys in this country is born with autism. [INAUDIBLE]. So there are a lot of places out there. We're helping our community, and we feel these kind of facilities have to be built to help the community with autism [INAUDIBLE].
THE MODERATOR: So much has been made of what you've done for autism, but there is also the foundation in South Africa as well and a couple players on the PGA TOUR have come through there and they get a lot of notoriety, but there are a lot of folks that have gone there and built life skills. Talk specifically about what the first tee has done and the foundation in South Africa?
ERNIE ELS: Yeah, well, actually the First Tee is involved with our autism foundation also. We do golf clinics with the kids around the country, and the First Tee comes in, and their kids actually teach our autistic kids about the golf swing. Some of the PGA of America TOUR pros come in and help us out. So it's a whole family deal with the golf community getting together with the TOUR and so forth.
We do have a foundation back in South Africa, and we've been fortunate enough to have quite a few good players come out of there. So, yeah, with the life skills program, as you say, working with the First Tee program has really been a lot of fun. We keep trying to get the talent out of South Africa, you know, give them opportunity to be able to play on the PGA TOUR or European TOUR, but especially the PGA TOUR. That's been a real factor for us. And Branden Grace is now playing hot golf. He was in our foundation.
And we keep looking for talent in South Africa. But it's so difficult for those kids to leave South Africa and get on the world stage. Our Rand keeps dropping against the dollar, so it gets more and more expensive. We take on a kid, pay for all his education, and golf equipment and golf lessons and basically take over the kid's financials and get them turning around, and eventually we get them into colleges in the U.S. or in South Africa worldwide and then getting them on TOUR on the PGA TOUR.

Q. The part about your role in golf now. Obviously, everybody wants to win. Winning more tournaments. But do you see yourself more in a role of this is a stage for you now to get your message out for various projects?
ERNIE ELS: Yeah, I mean, that's how things work. This has just worked out, you get to a certain age, and basically you've found your feet in whatever endeavor you want to get involved with. With us, it's been autism and the foundation work and so forth. You get to the age of 45, 46, and with all the work you've done through all these years, you actually have been able to establish something, and we're at that stage right now.
As you said, with the foundation it's been a little bit of a different and easier track. Autism there's been a lot of money to be raised. There has been a lot of stuff that we had to learn in the system, the American system. We've taken the long road, Liezl and her team, and my team working together to get this done, we've had to really basically learn from scratch and take all the necessary steps. So we've done that. To finally have the doors open now is just incredible.
So from now on it should go easier because you've kind of paid your dumb tax and kind of know where you stand and have a clearer idea of what you want to do. So I think we'll find these kind of things only come with time and you learn. You learn from learning, basically.

Q. Billy Herschel was in town on Monday, and he talked about how emotional he saw some of the other recipients [INAUDIBLE]. How did you find out and what was your initial reaction? And two, is that kind of because you knew Payne Stewart, is that tied to it at all?
ERNIE ELS: Yeah, I'll take the second bit of it first. I knew Payne. I was a youngster. I was 28 years old when he ‑‑ I was in the air at the same time as Payne. I went to go see my back specialist up in Georgia. Landed in Orlando, and visited my girlfriend, my wife [INAUDIBLE] I remember it like yesterday.
We went home, and like everybody we watched it on CNN and on all these channels, the plane flying and Payne Stewart going. Then we went from there to go see Tracy and the kids up at Isleworth.
It was just a devastating time for the family, and you're in your 20s, so you're not really grasping everything, but I remember it like yesterday. And then going to Houston for the TOUR Championship and they had a little memorial there for Payne. I'll never forget the guy coming through with the bagpipes. I mean, my head was like I can't believe this. You know, he was with us.
So, yeah, I mean, that really struck a cord, obviously, with myself and the TOUR, and the Southern Company starting the Payne Stewart Award. I can't help but think about those times with Payne, and I think that's what gets the guys a lot of times. I saw Davis really tear up, Steve Stricker, I've seen all the guys. And I'll probably do that. It will probably happen to me also, because that's when it really hits you, you know. A guy that we knew as a golfer, and an award dedicated to Payne Stewart and what he's done in the game. So it's not really about that [INAUDIBLE].

Q. I know this has already been a huge week for you. How big is tomorrow at the Wyndham Championship for you? And what keeps you going? What keeps you out there playing?
ERNIE ELS: Well, the immediate goal is to try to move forward in the FedEx Cup, and you know I'm 170th on the list. I need a big week, but I feel like I'm going to the right place for a big week. I've really enjoyed what the Wyndham people, especially Bobby Long and the guys have done at Sedgefield. It's an old, traditional course. I've played it relatively well the last couple of years, so I'm really looking forward to getting there and getting my feet on the First Tee and playing golf.
It's been a great week this week, obviously, receiving this wonderful award, the Payne Stewart Award, and opening the school has been an unbelievable great time. But I'm ready to play a bit of golf and try to move forward in the FedEx.

Q. Ernie, can you give us some specific memories of times that you played with Payne?
ERNIE ELS: Yeah, yeah, I played with him numerous times. I played with him at New Orleans quite a few times. He loved New Orleans, the tournament and the town. I remember playing with him there and he was struggling with his putter a little bit. And we played the first two days together, and he switched putters on us a couple of times those first few days.
The great thing about Payne was that, you know, he was going through a bit of a tough time on the course, but away from the course you would never have known that. He could switch off, which is a great thing about Payne which I'm also trying to do. He was good at that. It was almost like he was in character with his plus fours, and then he would step out of character into normal play, and he was kind of a bit more of a laid back character. He was quite a fierce competitor on the course. We never really did a lot of small talk. It was all about getting the business done. He was quite tough on the course, but he was great away from the golf course.

Q. Getting back to tomorrow at the Wyndham Championship, is the Presidents Cup on your mind when you're going to go to that first tee?
ERNIE ELS: Not really. I'm really interested in playing really good golf. I really want to try to win this tournament. I have spoken to Nick Price in the last couple of weeks. We've had some lunches together and just mainly about how our meetings with the TOUR and Tim Finchem and so forth. But I said to Nick I don't want him to feel any pressure that because of my experience and so forth in the Cup that he needs to pick me or anything like that. He's got to pick on his merit and the way he looks at players and so forth.
So I want to play myself on the Cup. So that means I've got to basically win this week, at least finish in the top five, I think to move forward, something like that. So I know what I need to do, but it's not really going to be in the forefront of my mind, no. I think with or without me, the international team is going to be a strong team, and it will be a team that can take on the American team and win the cup again.

Q. When did you realize that charity was something that you could have a large impact on a lot of people's lives through charity because of what you had done in golf?
ERNIE ELS: Well, we started with the foundation when I was relatively young, basically in 1999 because I was fortunate enough to be able to play where and when I wanted overseas, and a lot of my friends didn't have that opportunity. And I'm sitting where I am today because my mom and dad could afford me to go overseas and play competitive golf. And a lot of other guys couldn't do that, and they're still in South Africa. So I was able to try to help players reach their full potential that way.
And then the autism deal was a natural also. My son is affected by it, and we just felt that we wanted to do something and build a proper school for autistic kids. Obviously, for my son. All these things that we got involved with, it was just a natural progression from what our lives were all about. So to be honest with you, I'm not doing it because I want to leave a legacy or anything like that. It was just to basically help my son have a good education and as it will be, we've got a school going now.
THE MODERATOR: Before we wrap up, I'll just cue up Mr.Womack one more time before we leave. Hearing those answers, are there any final thoughts on, one, why Southern Company kind of chose to start the Payne Stewart Award, and also any final thoughts on Ernie Els as your 2015 recipient?
CHRIS WOMACK: No, I think it's a great question, but just listening to Ernie and the great golfer that we have seen Ernie be, with his majors, but listening to his conversation and the depth which he has come to understand autism and his commitment to supporting golf in South Africa and South African golfers, I mean, it clearly speaks to why we think the Payne Stewart Award is so important because it shows how important golf is.
Life is bigger than golf, and golfers have to do things bigger than golf in the sport to advance the sport for doing things as well. So I'm sitting here just about to tear up myself just listening to all of this because this is the story that I think we want to tell, and these are the kind of guys we want to recognize as a part of the Payne Stewart Award.
I think you see that with the new kids coming through. They're all starting foundations now from Spieth to Rory to Day, everybody's recognizing that doing things bigger than golf. It's just fantastic for Southern Company because being a community citizen, whoever we serve, doing things bigger than your bottom line, those things are so important to us or to partner with the PGA TOUR, with Payne Stewart, with these players like Ernie Els, I mean, this is just great stuff. I could go on and on, but this is great stuff.
ERNIE ELS: I just want to thank you guys, the Southern Company. I mean receiving the Payne Stewart Award, Payne was such a great champion, and giving back. And I know that you guys do the same everywhere in the U.S., and the great example that you guys set for us as golfers. And as you said, the wheel keeps turning.
I'm a 46‑year‑old golfer, and as you said, these youngsters have already started their own foundations and they're already starting to give back to the community and to society. It's great to see that these guys have already grasped that. With your leadership and the PGA TOUR giving back, going through a billion dollars giving back a couple years ago already, this shows the importance that we all feel. We get so much out of the game and through the game we can give back to society. So I think with your leadership, with the Southern Company, you guys have made a big game changer there.

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