For Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els, 100 majors apiece and countless memories

Getty Images

For Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els, 100 majors apiece and countless memories

PGA Tour

For Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els, 100 majors apiece and countless memories

CHARLOTTE – Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els first met at the 1984 Junior World Championships in San Diego. Both were 14 years old and it was Els, the young South African making his first trip to the U.S., who beat Mickelson, the local prodigy, for the title.

Thirty-three years later, the two sat next to each other in the interview room at Quail Hollow Club and reminisced about that first encounter, a photo of the two as teenagers holding their trophies projected on a nearby screen.

“Do you see how grumpy Phil looks there?” Els quipped, chuckling.

Said Mickelson: “It doesn’t seem that long ago from those days, but it sure looks a long time ago.”

Ernie Els, left, and Phil Mickelson, pictured at the 1984 World Junior Championships

The two are now 47 years old and already Hall of Famers, having combined to win nine majors (Mickelson has five of them). On Thursday, Mickelson and Els will each add another impressive accomplishment to their legendary golf careers: the 99th PGA Championship will be the 100th career major start for both players.

“Playing major championships is what we dreamt about as a kid,” Mickelson said. “Every time I play in one, I remember back when I was a kid, competing in my yard against the greats, trying to beat them for major titles, and we both have been fortunate to have won some. I know we both want to win a couple more.”

Mickelson and Els are the 13th and 14th players in golf history to have competed in at least 100 majors. Jack Nicklaus and his 164 major starts leads a list that also includes Gary Player, Tom Watson, Arnold Palmer, Raymond Foyd, Sam Snead, Ben Crenshaw, Gene Sarazen, Tom Kite, Mark O’Meara, Bernhard Langer and Nick Faldo.

“That’s a heck of a list right there,” Els said. “Those are all our mentors, our heroes. … To go back to 1984 to where we are today in 2017, to look at that list, I think it will take a while to kind of sink in for the two of us.”

Els made his first major start as an amateur playing in the 1989 British Open at Royal Troon. He had birdied the last hole of his qualifier to earn a spot and remembers playing practice rounds with Nick Price, Mark McNulty and Tony Johnstone that week. Oh, and his hairstyle was pretty memorable, as well.

“Should probably hide that one,” Els said as another photo, this one of Els at Troon in 1989, appeared on the screen.

With his brother Dirk on the bag, Els went on to miss the cut by two shots, but he knew after that week that he would get to play in many more majors.

“I wouldn’t say I (felt like I) belonged but I felt like I could play as a professional golfer,” Els said.

Five years later, Els won the 1994 U.S. Open for his first major title. He has since added victories at the 1997 U.S. Open, 2002 British Open and 2012 British Open.

Ernie Els, and his “very cool” haircut, at the 1989 British Open. (Getty Images)

Mickelson took a little longer to grab his first major, but as Mickelson has said multiple times and repeated again on Tuesday: “I believed that once I won one, I would win multiple.” He won the 2004 Masters (with Els as runner-up) before adding to more green jackets (2006, ’10), a Wanamaker Trophy (2005) and a Claret Jug (2013).

As for Mickelson’s first major start, at the 1990 U.S. Open at Medinah, he remembers getting to within four shots of the clubhouse lead on the back nine during the final round.

“I actually felt like if I made a few more birdies, I might have a chance,” Mickelson said. “And of course I followed up with a few bogeys and that was that.”

Els said he has always admired Mickelson’s will to compete and win.

“I think his fighting spirit speaks for itself,” Els said. “You know, you guys (the media) were pretty hard on him early on in his career, when you (Mickelson) didn’t quite pull it off. And when you did, as you say, you’ve won quite a few of these major tournaments.

“That means he’s got a good fight within himself.”

Mickelson said it is not Els’ golf career but rather Els’ work with his foundation, Els For Autism, that comes to mind as Els’ crowning career achievement now days. But he can’t forget Els’ golf swing, either.

“Obviously he’s got the sweetest, smoothest, most beautiful, aesthetically pleasing golf swing you could ever imagine,” Mickelson said. “It was a pleasure to watch. It was tough to emulate.”

Can Mickelson’s fight and short game help him capture major title No. 6, and possibly his first U.S. Open to complete the career grand slam? Can Els’ sweet swing lead to a fifth major triumph?

Neither player appears to have thrown in the towel in that regard.

“I really enjoy the challenge of trying to win again, and going through a lull and not having my best stuff and then trying to get it back,” Mickelson said. “… I think if you enjoy the challenge and enjoy the process, you enjoy putting in the work and you enjoy putting in the time, I think you end up doing it.”

Said Els: “It’s hard to believe maybe for you guys (the media) that at 47 I’ve still got the hunger for it, but I really do. Hopefully I can get something going, get some momentum going, and who knows.”

Latest

More Golfweek
Home