CHARLOTTE, N.C. – They walked into the media tent at the PGA Championship, past the commemorative yellow cake, but Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els might as well have stepped into a time machine Tuesday at Quail Hollow.
Pointing to a monitor, a PGA of America media official wasted little time in transporting Mickelson and Els back to 1984. The Junior Worlds in San Diego was the first time they’d ever met; the first time, in fact, that Els, who grew up just outside Johannesburg, South Africa, had ever been in the U.S.
Playing in the 14-year-old division, Els nipped Mickelson by three shots, and so there he stood, beaming and holding a trophy the size of his torso, his blonde hair glistening in the California sun.
“Do you see how grumpy Phil looks there?” Els said, chuckling.
It was quite an introduction on the world stage, and 33 years later, Mickelson can still recall, in vivid detail, the moment that he knew this tall kid named Ernest was going to be a force. Third hole, par 5, 20 yards short of the green, and Els hit a skipping, spinning pitch that checked a foot from the cup.
“I hadn’t seen anybody else at 14 hit that shot,” Mickelson said.
They’ve been dazzling each other ever since, compiling Hall of Fame careers despite crushing near-misses in majors, family challenges and the domineering presence of Tiger Woods.
Whether they wanted to relive all of that two days before the start of this PGA Championship, who knows, but on Tuesday they officially became the 13th and 14th members of golf’s 100 Major Club. “It’s amazing that we’ve played together and against each other for so many years,” Mickelson said. “It doesn’t seem that long ago from those days, but it sure looks like a long time ago.”
Mickelson made his major debut a year after Els, at the 1990 U.S. Open at Medinah. Competing as an amateur that week, Mickelson moved into contention on Sunday, just a few shots off the lead, but made a few late bogeys down the stretch and finished in a tie for 29th. Little did he know that was the start of three decades of U.S. Open torture.
Fortunately for Els, he didn’t endure much major heartbreak early in his career, and especially not in the U.S. Open. He won in 1994 in just his eighth major start, and then took the 1997 title, too. As Els replayed his heroics down the stretch – the pure iron shots, the knee-knocking putts – Mickelson stared blankly into the monitor.
“I got the monkey off my back early on,” Els said.
For Mickelson, it took 47 tries to break through in a major, but that moment on the 18th green at Augusta was so significant that a silhouette of his victorious “leap” now serves as his personal logo. The player he beat that day in 2004? Of course it was Els, who was crushed, after thinking his Sunday 67 would be enough for his first green jacket. Eventually, Mickelson overtook Els in the major category, 5-4, but only after what he calls his “career-defining achievement” – The Open at Muirfield in 2013.
Surely, players of their immense talents would mop up against any other generation, but both competed in the middle of the Tiger Era. Woods’ dominance was so oppressive that it stunted the careers of every other player, but no one was affected more than Mickelson and Els.
Mickelson has long claimed that Woods did more for his career than any other player, because Woods pushed him to work harder, to begin a training regimen that increased his flexibility and, in turn, contributed to his longevity.
“I don’t think I would have had the same level of success had he not come around,” Mickelson said.
Els, though, can’t help but wonder. By the time Woods took the golf world by storm at the 1997 Masters, Els was already a major champion, and he would add to that tally two months later, at Congressional.
“I was ready to win quite a few, if you know what I mean,” Els said, “and him winning the Masters in the way he did, that threw me off a little bit. I thought I was really one of the top players, which I was, but that was a pretty special display of golf.”
And Els saw it over and over again – at Pebble Beach and St. Andrews and Kapalua. Els’ five runners-up to Woods in Tour events were the most of any of his opponents.
“I could have had a couple more, definitely, without him around,” Els said.
Is the Big Easy’s window closed? Now 47, like Mickelson, Els’ body has begun to break down and he has only five top-10s since 2013. He says he’s still hungry, and that he’s in the process of rebuilding his game, and that he’s rededicating himself, but that’s easier said than done.
Encouraging results are scarce and off-course interests consume more of his time. Last month, Els was named one of the four finalists for the Sports Humanitarian of the Year for his efforts to help children with autism, like his son, Ben.
“That’s the legacy that I see when I think of Ernie Els,” Mickelson said.
As for Mickelson, his priorities are changing, too. He says his family life has never been better, after health scares in 2010, but earlier this year he skipped the U.S. Open to attend his daughter’s commencement speech, and he parted ways with longtime caddie Jim “Bones” Mackay.
Despite a few close calls over the past four years, Lefty hasn’t won since July 2013 – indeed, Woods has hoisted a trophy more recently – and conceded that his obstacles now are more mental than physical.
“Once that clicks in and I settle down and focus like I did, I think I’ll play at a level that I’ve played before,” he said. “I don’t feel that golf mortality. I feel excited about this challenge.”
Mickelson didn’t even realize this was his 100th major until he saw one of his sponsor’s websites last week. He did some quick math – 25 years, four majors a year, yep, that adds up – and shrugged. Jack Nicklaus’ record of 164 majors is safe.
“It just goes by so fast,” Mickelson said. “You don’t even think about it.”
He played along with PGA officials on Tuesday, going down memory lane, posing for photos, poking fun at Els’ cake-cutting technique. But during the half-hour obligation, it became abundantly clear that Mickelson and Els weren’t ready to look back, not yet. Not with so much still to play for.
Their victory laps can wait.