As the best players on the PGA Tour descend on East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta for the 29th playing of The TOUR Championship by Coca-Cola, many of golf’s past and present legends are also in town to attend the presentation of the prestigious Payne Steward Award. This award was created in 2000 by the PGA TOUR to carry on the legacy of Payne Stewart and the values of character, charity and sportsmanship that he held so dear. The award has been presented annually at The TOUR Championship by Coca-Cola ever since Stewart tragically perished in a plane crash on his way to the same event in 1999, and it’s given to a player recognized by his peers and the industry for his accomplishments on and off the course. Southern Company has presented the award since its inception as it aligns with their core values of trust, performance and commitment, and this year’s recipient is Ernie Els.
Els is the parent of an autistic son, and his name has become synonymous with the fight against autism since the launch of the Els for Autism Foundation in 2009. In addition to using their public platform to bring much-needed attention to the disease, Ernie and Liezl Els’ fundraising efforts culminated last month with the opening of the Els Center of Excellence, a $30 million full-service school for autistic children in the Jupiter, Fla., area, for 300 students between the ages of three and 21. And while The Big Easy’s charitable efforts have been widely celebrated in the media, it’s his skillful play, character and sportsmanship that make him a fan and friend favorite in galleries and locker rooms across the world.
Els is the latest in a long line of players who have been recognized for embodying Payne Stewart’s core values. Davis Love III, who’s always been committed to using his profit to benefit others, was honored in 2008 for his work to support national and community-based programs for children and families through the Davis Love Foundation. Byron Nelson, one of the three inaugural honorees in 2000, was often described as a man of character and a true gentleman, just like Stewart. Nelson was introduced to the game as a caddie but later went on to set PGA TOUR records while always remaining humble no matter how high he climbed. Kenny Perry, the 2009 Payne Stewart Award winner, has placed a great deal of value on leaving a lasting image during his career. He and Stewart shared the knowledge that charitable giving impacts many more lives than any pin-hunting 5-irons or clutch putts. And when Ben Crenshaw was honored in 2001, it was just as much for his steadfast sportsmanship and integrity on the golf course as it was for his charitable efforts. Similar to Payne Stewart, Crenshaw always acts as the consummate professional no matter what the outcome may be.
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, and Els has chosen the Els for Autism Foundation as his selected charity.