CHARLOTTE, North Carolina – Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson will each make his 100th major start on Thursday at the PGA Championship, and both credit Tiger Woods with helping them boost their fitness and longevity.
US left-hander Mickelson, a five-time major winner, and Els, a four-time major champion from South Africa, paid tribute to the injured 14-time major champion Tuesday at Quail Hollow.
“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 has actually helped me with longevity.
“He was a big influence on that, so I don’t think I would have had the same level of success had he not come around.”
Els, a runner-up to Woods in the 2000 US Opens and the Open Championship, agreed, saying Woods’ 1997 Masters victory was so impressive that it derailed his own major chances for a time.
“I was ready to win quite a few, if you know what I mean, and then when Tiger came in ’97 and him winning the Masters in the way he did, that threw me off a little bit,” Els said.
“I thought I was really one of the top players, which I was, but that was a pretty special display of golf. I had quite a few run-ins with him in majors. It wasn’t really very close.
“This guy is so special and he absolutely changed the game. He got us to really elevate our games. But I could have had a couple more, definitely, without him around.”
Els won the 1994 and 1997 US Opens, and the 2002 and 2012 Open Championships.
Mickelson won the 2004, 2006 and 2010 Masters, the 2005 PGA and the 2013 Open. Els was elected to the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2011, and Mickelson the following year.
“I think it will take a while to kind of sink in for the two of us, but it’s pretty cool,” Els said of becoming golf centurions.
“It just goes by so fast. You don’t think about it,” Mickelson said. “It has been a lot of fun. I know we both want to win a couple more.”
Playing in 100 majors, 64 shy of the record set by Jack Nicklaus, was an astounding feat to Rory McIlroy, preparing for his 36th major appearance.
“That’s pretty impressive,” McIlroy said. “That’s (25) years of playing majors. Wow. It would be nice to get to that number one day. That’s pretty good longevity right there.”
Each man was asked to pick one shot from his majors as his best – Mickelson naming his blast from the pine straw around a tree at the 13th hole at Augusta on the way to victory in 2010, and Els with his second shot at 17 to help seal his second US Open title at Congressional.
“Lefty” and “The Big Easy” sized up each other’s legacy as well, Mickelson citing Els’ work with autism charities as well as his golfing skills.
“What he’s done for Els for Autism, I think that’s the legacy he’s leaving where he’s changing the lives and impacting a lot of lives that go through autism,” Mickelson said.
“As a player, obviously he’s got the sweetest, smoothest, most beautiful, aesthetically pleasing golf swing you could ever imagine. It was a pleasure to watch. It was tough to emulate.”
Els compared Mickelson to some of the masters of the sport. “Phil reminds me of an Arnold Palmer, a Seve Ballesteros, a bit of Fred Couples, a guy with a lot of talent,” Els said.
“Some places he hits the ball, people want to see how he gets out of there. And 90 percent of the time, he gets out of there and probably will make a birdie.
“I think his fighting spirit speaks for itself... He’s a pretty good guy and a hell of a golfer.”