VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - Golf champions were championing a worthy cause in Virginia Beach Monday.
Professional golfers Ernie Els and Marc Leishman took part in the Els for Autism Pro-Am Invitational at the Princess Anne Country Club. The charity golf tournament paired amateur golfers with PGA touring professionals and professionals from the mid-Atlantic region in an 18-hole Pro-Am to benefit the Els for Autism Foundation, SEAL teams, Families of Autistic Children in Tidewater (FACT) and the Virginia Autism Foundation.
It's the second straight year Els has made the trip to Virginia Beach for an Autism benefit. Last August, Els hosted the inaugural Els for Autism Pro-Am Invitational.
"I was able to get to know a lot of people here from the club and around Virginia Beach last year, and I felt the need to come back," Els explained to News 3. "This year is even bigger than last year."
The 2017 Els for Autism Pro-Am raised $148,000. In 2018, prior to the tournament even teeing-off, the event had raised $211,000.
"I am grateful to all of today’s participants," Mark Llobell, founding member of the Virginia Autism Project said. "We will be able to assist many families in our community and provide more comprehensive services for their loved ones with autism with today’s event proceeds."
"To be here and support his cause, Els for Autism, it's just nice to be able to help out - and I'm proud to do so," Leishman, who considers Els one of his golf idols, said.
An additional beneficiary from the 2018 Els for Autism Pro-Am Invitational is Stephen "Turbo" Toboz, a retired U.S. Navy SEAL who was diagnosed with stage three rectal cancer earlier this year. In March 2002, Toboz lost his leg during a recovery mission in Operation Enduring Freedom.
"Being around good people like this supporting you and helping you get through your bad times helps, Toboz explained. "There are always other ways to battle. Keep your path forward and stay positive. There's no feeling sorry for yourself. It's not going to get you anywhere. When I start feeling pain with my leg or my cancer, I go get a good workout in and kick my own butt."
Els, a four-time major winner, was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2011. Leishman, a resident of Virginia Beach, is the 17th ranked golfer in the world.
The Els for Autism Foundation was established in 2009 by Liezl and Ernie Els. The Els’ son Ben is impacted by the disorder which affects one in 68 children in the U.S. Autism is the fastest-growing serious developmental disability in the U.S. with an estimated two million individuals affected. More children will be diagnosed with autism this year than with AIDS, diabetes and cancer combined. The 2017 Els for Autism Pro-Am Invitational will generate funds not only for the work of the Els for Autism Foundation but also local autism organizations in Hampton Roads.