The trophy room in Ernie Els’ Jupiter, Fla., home is no doubt busting at the seams with all the hardware the 45-year-old South African has earned on the golf course over the last 25 years. But he’s going to have to make room for another prominent prize, as it was announced last Wednesday that his tireless work for autism awareness and research, combined with his impeccable record as a golf role model, has earned him the 2015 Payne Stewart Award.
The Payne Stewart Award, presented by Southern Company, was created by the PGA TOUR after Stewart’s tragic death in a plane crash en route to the 1999 TOUR Championship. The award serves to carry on the legacy of Payne Stewart by rewarding players who embody the values of character, charity and sportsmanship, and is presented annually at the TOUR Championship by Coca-Cola in Atlanta. Southern Company, which was the TOUR Championship title sponsor the year Stewart died and continues to be the “Official Energy Company of the PGA TOUR and Champions Tour,” has presented the award since its inception. The award has become a symbol of overall greatness in professional golf, and something every player strives to earn. “It’s special, because it’s awarded to players who exemplified what Payne believed in,” says Nick Price, the 2002 honoree (other past winners include Nick Faldo, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer). “Not only did he achieve a lot, but he gave a lot.”
“Giving a lot” has become standard fare in Ernie and Liezl Els’ lives. In 2009, after their youngest son, Ben, was diagnosed with autism, the Elses dedicated their lives to understanding and bringing awareness to the disorder. They launched the Els for Autism Foundation with the goal of funding the Els Autism Center of Excellence, the first of its kind in the world. After six years of fundraising, the couples’ dream became reality on Aug. 17 when the $30 million (including $6 million of their own money), 26-acre facility opened for business in Jupiter, Fla. The center focuses on a digital e-learning platform that gives children with autism access to the best practices in education and therapy, and has on-site education for 300 students ages 3-21. It also offers medical and professional services, a research facility and on-site job training.
The Payne Stewart Award is accompanied by a $500,000 contribution from Southern Company, with $100,000 going to the First Tee of the Ozarks, $100,000 to the Stewart Family Foundation and $300,000 to the winner and his selected charities. Els has chosen Els for Autism and the Ernie Els & Fancourt Foundation as his select charities. The Ernie Els & Fancourt Foundation’s mission is “to identify talented young South Africans predominantly from families of limited resources and provide them with educational and life-skill assistance and playing opportunities in order to produce successful, well-rounded and educated young golfers.”
Els was moved by the distinction. “To be considered worthy of receiving such an award, especially with the association to Payne, makes me feel proud and humble,” he said. “The work that we do is a massive team effort, and I thank my wife Liezl and everyone at the foundations for their work and commitment, as well as all the individuals and corporations that support us in helping improve the lives of kids, young adults and families who need and deserve our help. Thank you also to everyone at the PGA TOUR and to Southern Company for the incredibly generous donation that will help us in our ongoing mission to support causes close to our hearts.”