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April 15, 2008

Ernie Els


DOUG MILNE: We'd like to welcome Ernie Els to the Verizon Heritage media center. Ernie, as we all know, April being National Autism Month and the Els family affected by that with Ben, just talk a little bit about the effort to raise awareness in this important month.
ERNIE ELS: Well, as you say, it's Autism Awareness Month, and obviously we've got to get the word out even more this month, basically because it's going to affect so many more people in the future and you're going to be -- young families are going to be affected. I mean, one in every 150 kids are being affected by autism. Unbelievably, boys are more affected than girls. So you're going to have a lot of people in the very near future that are going to have to deal with raising kids with autism.
You know, it's come a long way. Our boy is six. His name is Ben. We reside in England, and I must say here in the U.S. they've done a great job of getting the word out and getting the awareness out and really preparing young families and educating young families how to deal with raising kids with autism. You know, we have a young family ourselves, and there's another player on TOUR that's got a son with autism, and we just felt that it's a good time now to maybe make it more public and come out and try and help other people deal with raising kids with autism. That's basically the whole plan.

Q. Can you speak a little bit more about when your son was diagnosed and what his symptoms were?
ERNIE ELS: Ben is six now. I would say since he was born both myself and Liezl, we kind of heard that boys are a little bit slower to develop than girls are at a very young age. He just was way off from where Samantha was. Samantha is our other kid; she's nine in May. Just the things that he was doing, and he was wriggling his hands like that, and if we spoke to him there was no response. He didn't walk until he was two years old, a lot of stuff was happening.
We just thought, you know, maybe he's kind of a little slow in developing. We took him to numerous doctors, numerous tests, blood tests, all kinds of tests, and really was put under the autism spectrum. And that was then in the UK.
So yeah, we've known from a very young age that Ben was affected.
And then you start learning more about it, and that's basically where I said the Internet comes in. I met a family in South Africa who raised their kid who is autistic, the kid is 30 years old now. When we go on vacation in South Africa, he's always on the beach, he's a golf nut, loves playing golf, so I started playing golf with him and speaking to his parents, just finding out more about how they raised him and what they did. That helped a lot.
Then as you find out when you go to the Internet, so many people are finding out and communicating with each other through the Internet and finding out how bad some of the kids are and what stage they are at and what you did as a parent and what they did as a parent, and you kind of compare notes and you take it from there, because all these kids are differently affected by autism. Some of them are quite highly functioning where they can speak and do things like normal kids do, and other ones are just very badly affected by it, where they just -- they can't really do much, can't really communicate.

Q. As a father did you go through some sort of denial period or was there acceptance?
ERNIE ELS: You know, you want your kid to be a normal kid, like everybody. You want your kid to play sport and you want your kid to do normal things, and when it doesn't happen you kind of ask questions, and that's when you really want to know exactly from doctors, you want to know the answer. Like when you have a flu bug you get a tablet or you get a flu shot and basically it's done in a week or two.
You know, you ask so many questions, and there's no simple, straight answer, that it is what it is. Some kids come out of it and a lot of them don't, and you've got to basically raise a kid that's not going to be your normal kid that plays sport and does well at school.

Q. Do you think this has had any effect on your playing, what's gone on this TOUR, worldwide, dealing with all of this?
ERNIE ELS: It is a tough situation, you know? You can't but feel for the kid more than yourself because you know how lucky you are. I'm talking about myself. To be normal and to do normal things and to basically live your dream, and now you've got a situation where the kid -- if he just can do something job-wise, like this other kid in South Africa, he can actually play a bit of golf, like a 12-handicap. So you really think of the future of the kid, of Ben. That's the thing that really worries me is what's the future going to hold. He's still quite small and young, where young kids really accept him. But what happens when he gets older? Then you're really going to see the difference in his behavior and things like he does. So that's the worry that you have is you just hope that you can do the best for his future.
But yeah, I mean, I can't say it's affected my game. Obviously mentally you can't but think about doing the best for him.

Q. Are you spending more time down here?
ERNIE ELS: Yeah, exactly. We're going to move down to Florida probably in the late summer, down to Palm Beach. I'm going to move to the Bear's Club, and I'm really looking forward to that. Samantha, she went to a couple of schools there, she found a school she really likes, and there's a good school for Ben called the Rainbow School, where they have a full, professional staff looking at autistic kids and helping them along, and there's a full program that they follow there.
Again, in the U.S. they're so far way ahead of the rest of the world. That's a huge factor why we made this move, to really give him the best treatment that we can get and move from there.

Q. How is Ben doing? Is he here this week?
ERNIE ELS: Yeah, Ben is here. We were going to do something with the Golf Channel this afternoon, but Samantha, my other kid, has got a little throat infection so she's going to the doctor, so we'll do something tomorrow morning. Yeah, Ben is doing fine; he's very healthy. On top of it, he's got epilepsy so we had to put him on a different diet and he's on medication for that, so we've got to watch that, too. But he's a healthy kid. He's happy. He's got a great sister. His sister really looks after him like a mom would do.
He's got quite a sense of humor, Ben has, and he will test you. He's a great kid, really. He's quite happy. He's a very happy kid. It's just he's affected by it, and that's basically that. But he's a happy kid.

Q. Tell us about your decision to come out and tell the world about this publicly.
ERNIE ELS: You know, I spoke to my wife obviously, and I really wanted everybody to feel comfortable with it, feel comfortable coming forward talking about it, not only myself but my wife Liezl and then Samantha, our daughter. Basically I feel quite worried about it because when we found out that one in every 150 kids -- can you imagine? That is just unbelievable to think of that number. I just feel that -- I never knew that, and my kid is under the autism spectrum, and I didn't know it as a parent, that it was this bad.
Again, the warning is that -- it could happen to anybody on this range. Where I'm standing hitting balls yesterday, I'm looking around, and all these guys are much younger than me and some of those don't have families yet, and it could happen to anybody out there, and we all want to have families and we all want to live happily ever after.
But things happen in life, and you've got to be more prepared when it happens. Hopefully speaking out and helping the awareness and really getting to the research of why autism happens to kids, maybe we can get people more -- that can have more hands on or they can be -- what's the word? They can be more ready for it than other people have been. So that's basically why we want to come out and talk about it.

Q. There's been a conflict in America about the causes of autism. Do you have an idea from any of the doctors why Ben has this?
ERNIE ELS: No, I mean, definitely I would say that these shots that the kids get, there's got to be something in that. I saw on the Today show when Matt Lauer was interviewing a certain person, and they actually didn't deny it, that it could happen.
Ben was born with autism. Some of the kids get these flu shots and there's symptoms from that. I feel there's something going on in the environment, something drastic has changed in the environment. It has to be either in the food, in the communication sector, with the Internet, cell phones, airwaves. There's got to be something with the environment there. You know, genetic, I don't think it's in the genes or genetic. Something is going on, and we basically need to dig and find out why this is happening. But we definitely are living in a different world than we did, say, 30, 40 years ago.

Q. Have you seen anything about what life is going to be like for him?
ERNIE ELS: Well, I kind of know how he's affected by it because I've seen some other kids. I think he'll be okay. You know, hopefully we can do high school with him and get through high school at some point. Luckily for him, you know, money-wise he's not going to be struggling for a while. I don't feel like I've made too many bad investments (laughter). So he's going to be comfortable there and a lot of things we can envision him to do.
He loves watching golf, so at some point I'll get him into golf where he can hit the ball and enjoy that. Who knows? We'll see where it goes. But he's not a kid that's so affected by it where he sits in the corner and doesn't want to know anything about anybody else. That's how the worst affected kids are, the kids that don't want any contact with other people. But he's not that bad.

Q. Put into perspective the disappointment that you go through as a professional golfer finding out something like this about your child.
ERNIE ELS: Well, absolutely. But you know, a good friend of mine who's been kind of a mentor of mine has always said that life loves you, you don't love life. You can't control what happens. The good Lord gave us a good challenge here, and he won't give it to people that can't handle it. That's what I feel like. He's given us something that I know we can handle as a family. You know, you move on. All of us have had disappointments. I mean, golf, yes. I've had many disappointments, but I've had them since I was 14 years old, and competing at a high level, amateur, junior, professional. You want to win tournaments, and I should have won tournaments when I was a junior amateur, and I've won tournaments when I tried to. So that goes hand in hand.
What's happened to me on the golf course, it's separate than private family life. That's the way I want to look at it.

Q. As a follow-up, is there something specific you want to do to get the message out?
ERNIE ELS: No, just a little bit here and there. I put the autism logo on my golf bag, and obviously when I did that I got a lot of questions. I did an interview with Rich Lerner off camera, and then he mentioned it on television at one of the tournaments, I can't remember where, and I can't tell you how many emails we got. I promise you that the book is this thick of emails from parents who were so happy with me in my position talking about it. The emails I got were from parents -- especially from the dads, where they said that they were really happy that somebody is -- a man is talking out about it, speaking out about it, because it seems like the men in the relationships have been very quiet and kind of withdrawn from it because you don't want anybody to know about your situation, which is normal, because we're all proud people and you want your -- you don't want your problems out in public.
But I just felt that I can help people and I can help them feel better about their situations. It just shows you that anybody -- we're all living in the same boat here. All of us have the same similar problems that affect us. I just felt like that would help.
And then obviously what you really want to do is work with Autism Speaks people and get a cure and find out why it happens because I think everybody would like to know that.

Q. A quick comment on Trevor's victory and what this will mean for South African golf.
ERNIE ELS: It was great. I was lucky, I spoke to Trevor -- I talked to him yesterday again just when he landed in New York. I think he was doing all the shows and stuff out there yesterday. It's great. You know, it's like I said to him, he's always asked me, and obviously with Gary and Retief and the guys for advice how to win a major. And I said to him, now I can ask him some advice of how to win the Masters because we've all tried to win it for so long. And all these guys I've mentioned, Tim Clark and Rory Sabbatini, we've all finished second; we've never been able to go that one step further. I think he's going to have to give us advice now how to win majors.
But from a South African perspective, it's unbelievable. We've needed this one. We've got a lot of good players out on TOUR. We've got a lot of young players around the world playing really well. A lot of these players are winning tournaments, but nobody has really won a major for the last couple years.
It shows you the depth of golf in South Africa and the strength of golf in South Africa, but also for a young guy in his 20s to win a major is wonderful for our TOUR and for the country.

Q. Coming back to Harbour Town, you've had a lot of success here. Do you come in feeling good about your game, saying, I'm going to break through at this tournament; I've been so close?
ERNIE ELS: I'm excited to play again. I've been working a little bit with Butch Harmon. Obviously it wasn't great timing, starting to work with him just before the Masters. But I really kind of lost my swing a little bit after the Honda Classic and I needed to do something. I wanted to go his route.
So I'm looking forward to seeing how these changes in my swing are coming around. Last week it didn't work too great, but it's a little early, as I say. But I feel like I can really work on something now that's going to help me.
I played nine holes yesterday, last night, and I think the course is in great shape. I always have a great feeling coming in here. It's great family time for us. It's quite relaxing, and it's a great golf course. I love this golf course. It really forces you to hit certain shots.
I've come close, as you say, and I feel good about the week. I feel like I can have a good week here this week.
DOUG MILNE: Ernie, thank you very much for joining us. We appreciate your coming in.

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