Saturday, June 19, 2010

The US Open: Leaderboard

As of 11:27 AM CDT, Ernie Els is tied for second at the US Open in Pebble Beach, just two shots off of the lead. While most of the US coverage is focused on Phil Mickelson, I'll stick with Els.

Back in 2008, after failing to win a PGA Tour event in 2005, 2006 and 2007, Els won the Honda Classic. Five days later, Els held a press conference and said, "I have a son with autism - his name is Ben."

I get that.

In a game dominated by mental toughness as much as physical ability, it's no surprise that Els struggled from 2005-2007. His mind was getting its ass kicked on a regular basis. Here's how he described it to Parade Magazine:

"I was feeling sorry for myself. You're a man, you have your boy: You want to play football, soccer, and golf with him. Out on the Tour, you miss a couple of putts, and you don't play well. That's an emotional roller coaster, regardless of what's going on in your personal life. Then, all of the sudden, you connect the two--my God, my son has autism--and you really feel a bit depressed."

No celebrity story about autism resonates with me more than Els's. It isn't the fact that his son, Ben, is Robbie's age. It isn't the fact that his daughter, Samantha, is Kelly's age. It isn't the fact we're both outstanding golfers. It isn't even the fact that our personal trajectories' with autism almost occurred at the exact same time. It's how he and others describe his experience. The similarities are just hard for me to miss.

Els tried to keep Ben's condition private. He tried to deal with it on his own for a long time. That doesn't work. It's a lesson most of us had to learn the hard way. For Els, it took strokes off his game. For me, it put pounds on my waist. He kept an outward appearance of calmness and hid the fact from the people closest to him, including Chubby Chandler, his manager. As CBS Sports reports:

On the surface, Els always looks calm. When he was winning 15 times between 1994-2004, he looked calm. When he was winning just once from 2005-09, he looked calm. Even his manager and close friend, Chandler, didn't know.

I get that.

"At the time, I couldn't see what he was going through," Chandler said. "I couldn't see the bad side. But now that it's good, I see the good side. I see how relaxed he is. He's serene." It starts with a first step.

I have a son with autism.

The hardest words I've ever said. And they're still hard. But once you finally say them - and mean them- the damn breaks. The water rushes out in a fury. Eventually it empties and you start to get your life back. Your game. Your sanity. Your waist. Now, off to the gym.

(Thanks to Mike S. for the Parade link)

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