CHARLOTTE — It all started on a sunny day in San Diego.
The 1984 Junior World Golf Championship pitted a young South African named Ernie Els, making his first visit to the United States, against a hometown favorite in Phil Mickelson. Els prevailed on that occasion, and the two men’s careers have been intertwined ever since.
“I remember that final round,” Mickelson said on Tuesday at Quail Hollow Club, home to the 99th PGA Championship. “I remember a shot you hit in the final round on No. 3. It was a par 5, and you had it about 30 yards short of the green and 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.”
Mickelson would eventually exact his revenge on Els for that 1984 loss: 20 years later at the 2004 Masters, when Mickelson left Els heartbroken on the practice putting green as he holed the putt to collect his first major.
This year, at the 2017 PGA Championship, Ernie and Phil will each play in their 100th major championship — an extraordinary milestone that just 12 golfers in history have surpassed, with Jack Nicklaus leading the way with 164. For most 47-year-olds, the event would be little more than a swansong. A victory lap for a career well-played. But Ernie and Phil aren’t done. Not yet.
“It may be hard to believe that, at 47, I still have the hunger for it, but I do. I really do,” Els said.
Just five years ago, Els and Mickelson’s trophy-laden careers looked to be all but over.
Both were on the wrong side of 40. Mickelson had collected just one major since 2006, and Ernie was 10 years removed from his last win at the 2002 British Open.
But as the legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly once said: “Form is temporary, class is permanent.”
At the 2012 British Open, Els leaned on his experience to navigate a tricky course at Royal Lytham & St. Annes Golf Club, shooting a final-round 68 to snatch the trophy from Adam Scott, a man 11 years his junior, who bogeyed his final four holes.
A year later, it was Phil’s turn.
Sitting T-9 and five shots back after three rounds, Mickelson electrified the crowd at Muirfield. He came alive on the back nine, birdieing four of his final six holes — including a stunning 302-yard 3-wood into the par-5 17th — to land the Claret Jug. It was that victory, Mickelson says, which will always be the one he is most proud of.
“I thought that was going to be the toughest one for me, given the conditions and links golf, but coming out on top there was a career-defining achievement.”
Mickelson credits his longevity to an increased emphasis on flexibility; Els says his primary focus nowadays is on avoiding injury. On the course, it’s mostly become about keeping rhythm, the pair said, something that hasn’t gone unnoticed by this week’s odds-on favorite Rory McIlroy.
“Look at their golf swings, they’re quite loose and long and languid,” McIlroy said. “It’s how they’ve spent more than 20 years playing majors. It would be nice to get to that number one day.”
Mickelson and Els come into the season’s final major knowing that time is running out, but they each think they still have more majors left to win. If golf fans are lucky, maybe we’ll even see another duel along the way.
“It’s amazing that we’ve played together and against each other for so long,” Els said. “I never thought we’d be playing against each other for life.”