will play his 100th major championship in the US PGA at Quail Hollow in North Carolina from August 10 to 13. It is another outstanding achievement for one of South Africa’s greatest sportsmen.
Coincidentally, another of the game’s legends, Phil Mickelson, will be reaching the same milestone at the tournament. It would have happened at the Royal Birkdale Open, but for his having to withdraw from the US Open. It will be a rare moment in the annals of the game, especially as both Els and Mickelson are still capable of contending, even though they may be past their prime. They are not in the field at Quail Hollow as special invitees. Both aged 47, they will become only the 13th and 14th golfers in history to play 100 majors, which takes a minimum of 25 years to accomplish. No one has ever done it in that short a time frame, although Jack Nicklaus did play 146 consecutive majors from 1962 to 1998.
Getting to 100 majors entails two considerable requirements for the modern-day golfer, where getting into the field for a major comes with strict eligibility restrictions.You must either have had a career where you maintained a high level of performance for at least 25 years, or you had to have been a Masters champion, which means you have a lifetime exemption to tee up in one of the four majors every year, even when you’re long past your best (Fred Couples will be 59 when he reaches 100 majors at the 2019 Masters).
Els and Mickelson fall into the first category. They have an even spread of majors which they have contested. Els will have played in 27 Opens, 25 US Opens and PGAs, and 23 Masters, and Mickelson in 26 US Opens, 25 Masters and PGAs, and 24 Opens.The current 12 incumbents have won 73 majors between them, and Els and Mickelson will add another 9 majors to that tally. Notable stars who never got to 100 include Seve Ballesteros, Greg Norman, Nick Price and Lee Trevino. The previous player to reach 100 was Nick Faldo, at the 2015 Open aged 58. He had last played all four majors in the same year in 2004, but managed to get to 100 thanks to being a past Open champion, and playing in another eight of them.
Ernie Els won four majors in his career,which seems a meagre return for a player of his immense stature in the game.Such was the brilliance of his play over a span of 20 years that it could easily have been double that number, or more, with a little bit more luck on his side. South Africans who have followed him since the beginning of his career have lived through many emotional ups and downs – he has been in the top-10 a remarkable 35% of the time.They know only too well how fickle fate can be at the highest level of the game.
Every major in which Els seriously contended, and let’s say there were at least 20 of them, was a fraught occasion, marked by increased tension and pressure. He handled it superbly. He was involved in three playoffs, and two of his other wins were by one-shot margins, as were two of his defeats. What has characterised his 99 majors to date is the way he has time and again risen to the occasion when the eyes of the golfing world focused four times a year on its historic championships, as only the greatest players had done in the past. Gary Player is the only other South African to have played 100 majors, getting to 150 before he finally called it a day at Augusta National in 2009 at the age of 73.
Photograph Ian Walton
Rare Moment at Quail Hollow when Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson both reach one of golf’s special milestones. By Stuart McLean