100TH MA­JOR

DY­NAMIC DUO CEL­E­BRATE,

The Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTS - DOUG FERGUSON

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — On the mon­i­tor be­low them was a photo from the first time they met. The 14-year-old South African with an easy smile was hold­ing the win­ner’s tro­phy from the 1984 Ju­nior World Cham­pi­onship. Next to him was the golden boy from San Diego, slightly taller at the time, hold­ing his tro­phy as the run­ner-up.

Ernie Els and Phil Mick­el­son are still go­ing at it, rarely ri­vals, al­ways friends. The next time play­ing to­gether, this week at the PGA Cham­pi­onship, marks a spe­cial oc­ca­sion for both. Three decades later, Els and Mick­el­son join an elite club by com­pet­ing in their 100th ma­jor cham­pi­onship.

Els won his first one in 1994 at the U.S. Open at Oak­mont. Two-time U.S. Open cham­pion Curtis Strange was quoted as call­ing Els the “next god.” Only later did the me­dia re­al­ize that what Strange had ac­tu­ally said was that Els would be the “next guy.” It just sounded the other way be­cause of his thick Vir­ginia ac­cent. Mick­el­son didn’t win his first ma­jor un­til he was 34, at the Masters, and it came at the ex­pense of Els.

Mick­el­son holed an 18-foot birdie putt on the fi­nal hole. Els, on the putting green hope­ful of a play­off, heard the ground-shak­ing roar, picked up his golf balls and walked off. He never won a green jacket. The PGA of Amer­ica brought them to­gether Tues­day for an in­ter­view and a cel­e­bra­tion, com­plete with a cake.

They be­come the 13th and 14th play­ers to reach 100 ma­jors, a list that starts with Jack Nick­laus and his 164. He is fol­lowed by Gary Player, Tom Watson, Arnold Palmer, Ray­mond Floyd, Sam Snead, Ben Cren­shaw, Gene Sarazen, Tom Kite, Mark O’Meara, Bern­hard Langer and Nick Faldo, who played his 100th and fi­nal ma­jor at St. An­drews in the Bri­tish Open two years ago.

All of them are in the Hall of Fame, Els and Mick­el­son in­cluded.

The PGA of Amer­ica had pho­tos from the first ma­jor they played (Els at the 1989 Bri­tish Open, Mick­el­son at the 1990 U.S. Open); the vic­to­ries in the ma­jors (five for Mick­el­son, four for Els); and yes, that 1984 Ju­nior World event.

“Do you see how grumpy Phil looks there,” Els said with a chuckle. “It was quite a while ago, I can tell you. We had a great time. It was my first time ever to the United States and what a place to go play golf at in San Diego. I guess that was the first time we met. I think we played 18 holes to­gether there that time, and I would never have thought that we’d be play­ing ba­si­cally for life.”

Mick­el­son re­mem­bers it well, specif­i­cally a shot Els hit in the fi­nal round when he was 20 yards short of the green on a par 5.

“You hit this lit­tle 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,” he said. “It’s amaz­ing that we’ve played to­gether and against each other for so many years. It doesn’t seem that long ago from those days.” And then he looked at the photo and said,

“But it sure looks like a long time ago.” Their daugh­ters were born a month apart, and now Els and Mick­el­son are send­ing them off to col­lege this year. Sa­man­tha Els was ac­cepted to Stan­ford. Amanda Mick­el­son is headed to Brown. They are linked mostly through com­pe­ti­tion, win or lose.

“Phil has had a great time, win­ning five. I’ve won four,” Els said. “But we’ve been in the hunt many, many other times and it didn’t quite come off. But it’s a hell of a thrill. It’s what we play for, what we prac­tice for. And you want to pull off great shots in the big­ger stage.”

They also had to set­tle for be­ing sec­ond fid­dle in the gen­er­a­tion that was Tiger Woods. Els was run­ner-up seven times to Woods world­wide, in­clud­ing back-to-back ma­jors in 2000. Mick­el­son lost out to Woods in the fi­nal group of the 2001 Masters, and he was run­ner-up to him at the U.S. Open the fol­low­ing year. How dif­fer­ent could it have been with­out Woods? Both say they would not have been the play­ers they be­came. Woods was as tough a ri­val as any­one would face, though Els and Mick­el­son say they rel­ished the chal­lenge.

“I feel as though had Tiger not come around, I don’t feel I would have pushed my­self to achieve what I ended up achiev­ing, be­cause he forced ev­ery­body to get the best out of them­selves,” Mick­el­son said. “He forced ev­ery­body to work a lit­tle bit harder. He forced ev­ery­body to look at fit­ness as a big part of the game of golf, and I think that’s ac­tu­ally helped me with longevity . ... So I don’t think I would have had the same level of suc­cess had he not come around.” Els al­ready had a U.S. Open vic­tory when Woods turned pro. He ex­pected to win more.

“And then when Tiger came in ‘97, and him win­ning the Masters in the way he did, that kind of threw me off a lit­tle bit,” he said. “I thought I was re­ally one of the top play­ers, which I was, but that was a pretty spe­cial dis­play of golf. Per­son­ally, I could have ob­vi­ously won a cou­ple more. But as Phil says, this guy was so spe­cial. He ab­so­lutely changed the game. He got us to re­ally el­e­vate our games, brought so much at­ten­tion to the sport, and ob­vi­ously a lot more dol­lars to play for. So we’ve got to thank him.”

Phil Mick­el­son and Ernie Els are both play­ing their 100th ma­jor at the PGA Cham­pi­onship.

JEFF SINER, CHARLOTTE OB­SERVER

Phil Mick­el­son and Ernie Els have been com­pet­ing against each other for more than 30 years.

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