Golfer Ernie Els, RBC Heritage partner for autism awareness

04/18/2013 8:31 PM

02/27/2014 1:20 PM

For many PGA Tour players, Ernie Els included, the RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing has been a favorite place to decompress after the Masters.

This year, the Heritage has become much more for four-time major champion and World of Golf Hall of Famer: For Els, the tournament is a chance to build reality out of dreams.

Today, tournament organizers will team with the Els for Autism nonprofit organization to highlight the importance of early detection and raise money to build the Els Center of Excellence, a school and research facility in Jupiter, Fla., that will serve people with autism from ages 3 to 21.

"The RBC Heritage has always been one of my favorite stops on tour and one that I always try to bring the whole family to. This year it's going to be even more special," Els said.

Five years ago, Els announced that his 10-year-old son was diagnosed with autism, and he and his wife established the Els for Autism Foundation in 2009.

Gov. Nikki Haley and the Heritage have designated today "Autism Awareness Day." Players, spectators, volunteers and media have been asked to wear blue and donate $5 for blue and white autism awareness pins -- designed to provide international awareness about the disorder.

Pins will be available to players at the first and 10th tees today, and spectators can pick up a pin and talk to Els for Autism representatives at the Heritage Classic Foundation tent from 2 to 5 p.m.

Title sponsor RBC and the Heritage Classic Foundation purchased 2,000 autism-awareness pins for tournament volunteers, corporate guests and pro-am players.

"We are honored to help Ernie spread autism awareness, and we hope all spectators join us by wearing blue on Friday," tournament director Steve Wilmot said.

Els envisions a model facility for developing international best practices in treating autism, while providing research, medical and professional services, education and job training

"We can have 300 kids where we can treat these kids past the age of 14," Els said. "Because when they turn 14, they have to get back into normal society. And a lot of these kids are not well-equipped to do that. So we have a center that goes well beyond that. ... Give them jobs. Give them something they can give their attention to."

The Els for Autism Foundation has raised half of the money needed to operate the center and plans to break ground at the end of the year and open in 2015, said Els for Autism spokeswoman Mary Kay Wilson.

The Els for Autism Golf Challenge -- a series of regional, amateur golf events -- began in 2011 and has raised more than $4 million in just two years. The event came to Harbour Town Golf Links for the first time last year and will return Sept. 9. The 2013 event has already raised $45,000 with support from presenting sponsor Boeing, and organizers hope to surpass $100,000, said Wilson.

Autism affects 1 in 88 children, with boys nearly five times more likely than girls to have the disorder. It has become the fastest-growing developmental disability in the U.S., costing a family $60,000 a year on average in treatment, according to Wilson.

Autism impairs one's ability to learn and develop healthy, interactive behaviors and understand verbal, nonverbal and reciprocal communication.

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