Ernie Els with his wife, Liezl, and children Samantha and Ben in 2005. (David Cannon/Getty Images)

They were, comparatively, kids then and not yet married when Ernie Els wrapped his girlfriend Liezl in an embrace 14 years ago after he won the U.S. Open at Congressional Country Club. The group hug included Els’s father, Neels, who thwacked Ernie on the back on Father’s Day, though he missed his mark in the bedlam and ended up slapping Ernie’s mother, Hettie.

No matter. Els was 27, a two-time major champion. His nickname, the Big Easy, fit his style of play, his demeanor, his life. What problems could the future hold? Major championships would come in bundles. Life would bring no bumps.

“If you asked me after my second U.S. Open win at 27, I would have said I would have won probably eight [majors] — at least,” Els said this spring. “And now, with a grand total of three, I would say yeah, I am a little disappointed I haven’t put another one on my resume. Other players, they would give anything just to win one. I think I probably could’ve won more.”

Els will arrive this week at Congressional a bit early for next week’s U.S. Open, and he’ll bring the same seemingly boundless talent and effortless swing he had 14 years ago. He also comes with the knowledge that he has 21 top-five finishes in majors, but has converted just three of them into victories: the first U.S. Open at age 24 at Oakmont, the dramatic victory at Congressional three years later, and the 2002 British Open.

Those accomplishments — or lack of them, in his view — define Els as a golfer. Among active players, only Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson have won more majors. Even at 41, Els’s circumstances on the course seem no different: same relaxed demeanor, same languid swing, same abundant gifts. So it’s not just Els who wonders: Could more have been expected from someone who owns 39 worldwide victories?

“Ernie, sadly, never understood the whole picture,” said Robert Baker, Els’s swing coach when he won at Congressional. “I mean this with the greatest respect, because I love the guy, and I love Ernie Els’s game. But Ernie should have won a lot more majors. As a golfer, he’s had a great career. But did he capture his potential? Not even close.”

Potential, though, can be a damning burden, its fulfillment often complicated. In evaluating a career, how do you factor in the unexpected, off-course development? How do you take one fact — that Ernie and Liezl Els’s second child, Ben, was born with autism — and determine its relationship with how someone hits a golf ball?

“People always ask in the negative way: Did it affect you?” Els said. “I’ve said for so long, no. But I would say, deep down, it probably does. I’m sure, in your subconscious, you are a little bit sad, because your boy, he’s not quite normal.”

Learning about autism

It took only a day. Samantha, Liezl and Ernie Els’s daughter, was an easy baby, “a perfect little girl,” Ernie said, “blond hair, blue eyes, just beautiful.” So eight years ago, when Liezl gave birth to Samantha’s younger brother Ben, the Elses had a reference point. And within 24 hours, Liezl knew: Ben’s behavior, his development, did not match Samantha’s.

“Nothing that you saw,” Liezl said. “Just that gut feel. Everything came slower to him. He made you frown just that little bit, that little bit of worry in the back of your head.”

Friends would tell them not to worry. “Ben’s just a slow boy,” they’d say. They meant well. It wasn’t the truth.

So the trips to doctors, endless trips to doctors, began. “It’s just a nightmare,” Ernie said. They heard that Ben was “developmentally disabled,” yet that seemed incomplete. Finally, they saw another specialist, this one in Augusta, Ga. The woman met Ben and smiled, immediately and knowingly.

“You know what I’m going to tell you?” she said.

“Yeah,” Liezl said. “I kind of know he’s on the spectrum.”

“I don’t think I ever wanted to say it to myself,” Liezl says now.

According to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, autism is a “complex developmental disability that causes problems with social interaction and communication.” It is called a “spectrum disorder” because symptoms and their severity can vary so widely from person to person. Autism Speaks, the primary international foundation supporting research of the disorders, estimates that one in every 110 children is diagnosed with autism, “making it more common than childhood cancer, juvenile diabetes and pediatric AIDS combined.”

The Elses’ course, then, was twofold. First, they had to learn how to raise Ben while simultaneously paying attention to Samantha’s needs.

“When you have kids, you always want to have that bond,” Ernie Els said. “With an autistic child, I would say it’s 1,000 percent more important to really have that connection. To me, it was very worrying I wasn’t spending enough time at home, because I wanted to make sure — with both my kids but especially with Ben, because of his condition — I really had that bond with him so when the tough times come, when we have teenagers, we can talk about their problems, and they can come to me.”

There was, too, the matter of how to handle their travails publicly. Their friends on the PGA and European tours knew of Ben’s condition, and they were quietly supportive. Ernie, to that point a private man, was dealing with his own boy’s problems, with his own life, but as a public figure, he was in position to bring a focus to autism. It all rattled him.

“Men want to know, ‘Did I do something wrong?’ ” Liezl said. “ ‘How did this happen? How can I prevent it? I’m the boss of this family. How did I let this happen?’ ”

So it was that Els arrived at the 2008 Honda Classic with the logo for Autism Speaks stitched on his golf bag. That week, after months of discussions with Liezl about how to handle it — he began talking about Ben’s condition in the media. And that was the Ernie Els who, eventually, started his own foundation, Els for Autism.

Ernie and Liezl began by raising money with a single golf tournament. They now have plans to raise $30 million — of which Els has already donated $6 million out of pocket — for the Els Center of Excellence, a facility with designs on providing access to education and therapy for autistic children around the world. The foundation has taken off, and this year is staging a massive, 32-site national golf tournament.

Housed in a small strip mall in Jupiter, Fla., along with the offices for Els’s wine and golf-course-design businesses, Els for Autism has helped Liezl and Ernie learn about Ben, about what’s ahead, and connected them with experts and regular people worldwide. It has not, though, alleviated all those questions that bubbled up inside Els when his boy’s disorder was first diagnosed.

“I think he still asks it every day,” Liezl said. “Why?”

A ‘hero’ in South Africa

Els’s 2011 season to date has been wretched, with no finish better than 15th. Sunday, he was an afterthought at the Memorial Tournament, finishing 62nd. Last month, he bogeyed his final hole in the second round of The Players Championship, missing the cut by one, the third straight time he had failed to even qualify for the weekend. His path after that final hole – from the green to the scorer’s tent to the locker room to the car, back home to Jupiter – was not that of a man who cares little about results.

“I try to take the emotional part out of it, and I’m fine,” Els said. “But I must say, you get [angry] because you’re not playing good golf, you can let your mind go and get weak, and you roll yourself right back into your depressed mode.”

For so many who have followed Els, there is no reason to be depressed about golf. Last month, in the middle of his career, he was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame. Back in South Africa, he took the place of Gary Player as the icon after whom a generation of kids modeled themselves. He began a golf development program in his homeland, a program that produced 2010 British Open champ Louis Oosthuizen. Both Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel, another South African who won the Masters in April, referred to Els with one word, unsolicited: “Hero.”

“You watched every step of what he did,” said Schwartzel, who has stayed at Els’s home during some Florida tournaments. “. . . I just watch what he does, the way he repeats things, and we all know his rhythm.”

It is, still, beautiful to watch, and he has maintained the metronome of a swing throughout his career, through various coaches, including renowned instructors David Ledbetter and Butch Harmon. But Baker, his coach in the late ’90s, believes there has long been a correctible technical flaw in Els’s swing.

“Ernie has never been that fond of instruction,” Baker said. “He’s not the kind of person you can throw the whole book at. He just wanted bits and pieces of what to feel. He’s such a feel player.”

Take assessments like that, add them to all the perceived easiness that surrounds him — easy swing, easy life — and there has long been a simple conclusion: Ernie Els is content.

“That’s one thing people get wrong with me,” Els said. “I am quite a relaxed guy. We live a pretty laid-back lifestyle, yes. But it does not change me as a competitor. . . . I might not show it like Tiger, but there’s a huge burning competitiveness inside me.”

“It’s scary,” Liezl said.

“I think that’s also why those close calls still burn the hell out of me,” Els said.

There have been so many — the runner-up finishes in the 2000 Masters, U.S. Open, and British Open; seconds again at the 2004 Masters and British, the latter in a playoff. Convert a couple of those – or any of the 18 top-fives in majors in which he didn’t win — and he is indisputably one of the three greatest players of his generation. The most recent close call came in last year’s U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. Els pulled into a tie with leader Graeme McDowell on the front nine before disaster around the turn – a three-hole stretch which he played in 4 over par – and a slide to third.

“That one hurt,” Liezl said.

Fruitful journey continues

It hurt, he said, until he got back to his family. In that first moment, in a different kind of group hug, the pain melts away.

“I can’t put it in words how grateful I am to them, especially Ben,” Els said. “He’s taught me so much. He’s so innocent, so straightforward, so pure. I wish a lot more people could be like that, including me.”

Back home, Ben Els occasionally joins his dad on the range, not hitting balls, but running back and forth, yearning to be chased. Father and son will hop in a golf cart and drive it off the course, “bushwhacking,” Ernie calls it. When they swim, Ernie urges Ben to hold his head under water. He is stretching him, pushing his limits, trying to draw out a smile.

“If you get him to laugh,” Ernie Els said, “you see that look in his eyes, and it builds and builds. You see that he’s got a great sense of humor and a great sense of adventure.”

Ernie Els’s adventure may not have been the one he envisioned in 1997, when he hugged what was then the extent of his family. But next week, he will be back at Congressional, not just to relive old memories. “I’ve been looking forward to this U.S. Open for a very long time,” he said. It is at the site of one of his greatest victories. He arrives trying to simultaneously sort out his game and post one more — as a different man with a vastly different life.

“It’s almost like a full circle,” Els said. “I’m just a different person going back. I’m very grateful, a lot more appreciative of what I have, and maybe a little more grounded.”