THIRTY THREE years after first squaring off at a golf course long standing rivals Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson will share a big milestone this week when they play their 100th Major at the 2017 US PGA Championship.
The two 47 year olds first met when they were 14 at the 1984 Junior World Championship in California.
Els was making his first trip to the US from his home in South Africa and beat local prodigy Mickelson in the final of the event. Little did they know the encounter would be the first of many as they became multiple major winners in their Hall of Fame careers.
The 100 Major milestone was acknowledged earlier this week when the PGA had a celebratory cake made and presented to the pair as they prepared for another showdown at the Quail Hollow Club.
Els and Mickelson talked about their memories as a photo of that first encounter (pictured above) was displayed on a nearby screen.
“I remember a shot you hit in the final round on No. 3,” Mickelson said to Els. “It was a par 5, and you had it about 20 yards short of the green, and you hit this little skipping, spinning wedge shot that checked up about a foot from the hole. 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.”
Shown the photo of the pair that day, Mickelson commented: “It doesn’t seem that long ago from those days, but it sure looks like a long time ago.”
This week they become the 13th and 14th players to join the 100 club, a list that includes Jack Nicklaus (164), Gary Player (150), Tom Watson (145), Arnold Palmer (142)., Raymond Floyd (127), Sam Snead (119), Ben Crenshaw (118), Gene Sarazen (112), Tom Kite (109), Mark O’Meara (109), Bernhard Langer (105) and Nick Faldo (100).
“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.”
Said Mickelson: “Playing major championships is what we dreamt about as a kid. 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.”
Els major career began as an 19 year old amateur when he made a birdie on the final hole of qualifying to earn his spot in the 1989 Open Championship at Royal Troon. He’d missed the cut but the experience of playing practice rounds with the likes of Nick Price, Mark McNulty and Tony Johnstone was a turning point in his career.
“I felt like, I wouldn’t say I belonged, but I could play as a professional golfer,” said Els, who turned pro later that year.
Mickelson’s first major was the 1990 US Open at Medinah and he recalled Hale Irwin’s winning score of eight under and how at one point on Sunday he got to three or four under.
“I actually felt like if I made a few more birdies, I might have a chance,” Mickelson said. “And of course I followed it up with a few bogeys, and that was that.”
Els won his first major as a 24 year old in 1994 when he beat Colin Montgomerie and Loren Roberts in a playoff for the US Open at Oakmont.
He won the US Open again in 1997 and the Open Championship in 2002 and 2012. He was runner up at the US Masters in 2000 and 2004.
Mickelson won his first PGA TOUR event as an amateur in 1991but didn’t capture the first of his five majors until the 2004 Masters, when he was 34.
He went on to win the US PGA Championship in 2005, the Masters in 2006, 2010 and the Open Championship in 2013.
Famously, he is still waiting for his career grand slam after a record six 2nd/T2 finishes in US Opens.
Neither Els or Mickelson are ruling themselves out from another Major victory, and anyone else doing so would be taking a big risk.
“You know, it might be hard to believe for you guys that at 47, I’ve still got the hunger for it,” Els said, “but I really do.”