Ernie Els, GCSAA’s 2018 Old Tom Morris Award winner, and his son, Ben. Photo courtesy of Ernie Els
Ernie Els, a four-time major champion, member of the World Golf Hall of Fame (2010) and founder of the Els for Autism Foundation (2009), will be the recipient of the 2018 Old Tom Morris Award from GCSAA.
Els also founded The Ernie Els Foundation in 1999 in his homeland of South Africa, and then joined forces with the Fancourt Hotel and Golf Estate to establish The Ernie Els & Fancourt Foundation to help identify underprivileged teens who show talent in golf and give them a chance to reach their full potential in sport and education.
GCSAA’s highest honor, the OTM Award has been presented annually since 1983 to an individual who, through a lifetime commitment to the game of golf, has helped to mold the welfare of the game in the manner and style exemplified by Old Tom Morris. Morris, a four-time Open Championship winner, was the longtime superintendent at St. Andrews in Scotland until his death in 1908.
“I am honored and humbled to be asked to receive the Old Tom Morris Award from the Golf Course Superintendents Association,” says Els. “As I have grown in my involvement with the game of golf, from professional golfer to golf course designer, I have come to value more and more the role of golf course superintendents. They are as vital to this game as ever, and as vital to this game as anyone.”
Known as the Big Easy because of his stature and fluid golf swing, the 47-year-old Els has 70 professional career wins and is a former No. 1 ranked player who spent a record 788 weeks ranked in the top 10 in the world. He won his first major championship, the U.S. Open, at Oakmont (Pa.) Country Club in 1994, and went on to win another U.S. Open in 1997 at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md. He also won two Open Championships, in 2002 and 2012, and was the European Player of the Year three times (1994, 2002 and 2003).
But Els’ significant on-course accomplishments took a secondary role in his life when he learned in 2009 that his son, Ben, was on the autism spectrum. This diagnosis drove the Els family to lead funding for a $30 million Center of Excellence for Autistic children, which opened for 300 students in 2015 in Florida. The center offers professional and medical resources, therapy and education to help autistic children grow to lead full adult lives.
“Years from now, people may remember me as a golfer and a major champion. But I’d like to be remembered as somebody who took the issue of autism and did something with it,” says Els. “The rest of my life, I’ll be fighting this thing ... I hope you’ll join me.”
Els has rallied his business partners and everyday golfers to the cause since 2010, introducing a Golf Challenge series where fundraising is as important as a team’s final score. Els and his wife, Liezl, have also donated millions of their own money to the cause.
“He’s got his head screwed on right,” his longtime friend and fellow World Golf Hall of Famer Nick Price once said. Els has generously given of his time, and it has been noticed.
He was named one of the Top 5 Most Positive Athletes in the World in 2010 by the United Nations NGO Voting Academy, which comprises a panel from national groups such as Rotary International and Pathways to Peace. Els also received a Jefferson Foundation Award the following year as a professional athlete in service.
In the world of golf, his list of humanitarian honors is even longer. He received the Charles Bartlett Award in 2010 from the Golf Writers Association of America for unselfish contributions to society, the Winnie Palmer Award from the Metropolitan Golf Writers Association for unselfishly giving to those less fortunate through his work on behalf of autism, and the Payne Stewart Award in 2015 from the PGA Tour in recognition of his character, charity and sportsmanship.
Els first left his mark on the game when he was a teenager. He won the World Junior Golf Championship at age 14 in San Diego, and he was the youngest to win the South African Amateur Championship at age 17, breaking the mark of countryman Gary Player. He received the South Africa State President Sports Award in 1987, and was inducted into the South Africa Golf Hall of Fame in 2008.
Along the way, Els not only won golf tournaments, but developed his business skills in other avenues. He is involved in wines, restaurants and hotels, and in 2010, he started his own golf course design business, Ernie Els Design.
His company was recognized as Designer of the Year in 2014 and 2015, and company awards have included “Best New Golf Course in the World,” for The Els Club Teluk Datai in Malaysia, a course that has also recently made it into Golf Digest magazine’s prestigious World Top 100. At present, Ernie Els Design is the most prolific designer and builder in the industry, with 13 golf courses and renovations already open for play and another 11 projects in various stages of development.
Perhaps equally satisfying is hearing accolades for his work from the professional golfers playing at Wentworth Club (West Course) in the 2017 BMW PGA Championship, following a long process to restore and modernize the historic course.
“By any measure, Ernie Els is one of the greats of the game, and it is the distinct privilege and honor of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America to recognize this industry giant for all he has accomplished on and off the golf course,” says Rhett Evans, GCSAA CEO. “He elevates the human spirit in all of us to be better people and a more compassionate society.”
View the complete list of past Old Tom Morris Award winners.