Quite a few eyebrows were raised when Ernie Els missed the cut at this year's Dubai Desert Classic. After all, 'The Big Easy' has a fabulous record at the Majlis, winning three separate times (making him the most successful player in the history of the tournament) and never finishing outside the top-three in his seven previous appearances.
As Ernie struggled with his new putter during those two days, I overheard a particularly harsh comment from a spectator. After the South African missed a five-footer for par, this man, who looked like he had never broken 100 on any course, said: "This is what happens when you are thinking more about selling wines and designing courses, rather than spending time on the putting green."
Ironically, even though the comment was utterly uninformed and insensitive, that man was right – Ernie's mind has not been completely focused on golf in recent times, and he is trying to make more money outside the golf course.
But it is not his own business which is keeping Ernie busy. As I am sure most golf fans are aware, his life has changed drastically in the past 12 months.
In March 2008, after winning the Honda Classic on the PGA Tour, Ernie revealed that his six-year-old son, Ben, had been diagnosed autistic.
From the moment they found out, things have never been the same again for the Els family.
They relocated to Florida from Wentworth, because they felt Ben would benefit from the facilities and special education Stateside. Becoming the world No1 golfer is no longer a priority; fighting and raising awareness about autism is.
Even in the days leading to the Desert Classic, Ernie was trying to raise funds for his charity, which is committed to finding a cure for autism. With Dubai Sports City, he raised $90,000 (Dh330,000) and on March 23, Ernie and his friends on the Tour – as well as his friends off it – are playing a pro-am for the same cause.
Ernie's commitment is so strong that instead of a sponsor's logo on his bag, which would have fetched him a hefty sum in endorsement fees, he sports the "Autism Speaks" logo.
Personally, I got a sense of how much Ernie feels for the cause when on the eve of the South African Open last year, I came to know about a charity event he was hosting the week after the tournament. When he met the media, I asked him a few questions about the event.
Even though I was just doing my job, Ernie walked up to me after the press conference and said: "Thanks. I really appreciate you asking those questions."
Very rarely does Ernie do something like that, but my guess is he felt I helped him in some way in his bid to raise awareness of the subject.
I don't know if I really helped Ernie that day, but even if one person becomes aware of autism after reading this column, it will be a job well done.
- Joy Chakravarty is Editor of Middle East Golfer