CHARLOTTE, N.C. – They rolled in a cake for a celebration, and Ernie Els did the honors of cutting the first slices. On Thursday, Els and Phil Mickelson will make their 100th major championship starts at the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow Club.
These two World Golf Hall of Famers met long ago in San Diego when Els, 14, a South African on his first trip to the United States, had the audacity to beat the hometown favorite in the boys 13-14 age division of the 1984 Junior World Golf Championships. When they flashed a photo of the pair from the awards ceremony, Els wore a grin from ear-to-ear and held a trophy almost as tall as he was. “Do you see how grumpy Phil looks there?” Els said Tuesday during a joint news conference.
PHOTO BY ADAM SCHUPAK
Phil Mickelson (left) and Ernie Els celebrate their 100th major-championship starts.
Mickelson had finished second. It would be the first of many confrontations. Els won the first of his four majors at the 1994 U.S. Open, but Mickelson had to wait another decade before he bested Els with an 18th-hole birdie at the Masters. Mickelson took the lead in major victories with his fifth at the 2013 British Open, but he enters this week winless ever since.
Mickelson being Mickelson, he remembers the details from their San Diego duel as teens as if it were yesterday.
“You hit this skipping, spinning wedge shot that checked up about a foot from the hole, and that's when I knew you were going to be a good player because I had not seen anybody else at 14 hit that shot,” Mickelson said.
The duo will tie Nick Faldo for the 12th-most career starts in majors, just a mere 64 – or 16 years of playing all four majors – removed from tying Jack Nicklaus for the record.
“That's a heckuva list right there. Those are all our mentors, our heroes,” Els said. “It means we've done it, you know, properly, in a good way.”
For Els, it began as a 19-year-old amateur at the British Open at Troon. First, he had to birdie the last hole in qualifying to earn his spot in the field. He used a wooden driver and had his brother on the bag that week. He played practice rounds with Zimbabwe’s Mark McNulty, Nick Price and Tony Johnstone. Els missed the cut by two, but he would go on to be declared “Champion Golfer of the Year” and drink from the Claret Jug not once, but twice.
“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.”
The Big Easy’s numbers in the majors are impressive. In addition to winning four major titles, he recorded six runners-up among 35 top-10 finishes. He made the cut at 27 consecutive majors, from the 2000 Masters through the 2006 PGA Championship. Els has yet to hoist the Wanamaker Trophy that will be handed out on Sunday. He held a three-stroke lead going into the final round of the 1995 PGA at Riviera, but returned a 72 that left him outside of a playoff.
Two years later, at the 17th hole during the 1997 U.S. Open at Congressional, Els hit what he called the most memorable shot of his 99 majors to date.
“You guys still think that I pulled it,” he said. “I still say, you know, it's my natural draw shot in there. But that was a special shot.”
Els knows he had the talent and the opportunity to win several more majors but he also ran into the buzz saw that was Tiger Woods.
“I was ready to win quite a few [majors],” Els said. “When Tiger came along . . . that kind of threw me off a little bit.”
Els, 47, has been fighting a stubborn slump and has slipped to No. 419 in the Official World Golf Ranking. He’s in the PGA field on a special invite (tee times: http://bit.ly/1yf8r8M), the first time he has needed a free pass. He’s deserving, and he still covets another major championship to match Mickelson. Els said his desire to rebuild his game remains strong.
“I’ve still got the hunger for it,” he said. “I really do.”
On the eve of the 99th PGA Championship and his 100th major-championship start, Els fed that hunger with a bite of cake.
Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf World and The New York Times. He is the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @adamschupak