CHARLOTTE, N.C. — So often in sports, we’re numbed by the numbers. We take them for granted and, with society’s scant attention span, we mindlessly move onto the next thing.
Phil Mickelson, who’s both one of the best golfers the game has ever seen and a fan of the sport, is no different. Until it was mentioned to him a week ago that this week’s PGA Championship at Quail Hollow was going to be his 100th major championship, Mickelson had no idea.
And yet here he is, winner of five career majors championships, playing in his 100th major — as is Ernie Els, himself a four-time major winner.
The minimum time it would take to play in 100 major championships would be 25 years playing in all four of them every year. That number represents a rare sustained level of excellence — evidenced by just 12 players having played in 100 or more majors, led by Jack Nicklaus’ record 164.
For the impressive feat, the PGA of America honored Mickelson and Els on Tuesday. And, as part of the ceremony, the two were reminded — in the form of an old photograph of them together — of the first time they met: at the Junior World Golf Championships in 1984 in San Diego when they were mere teenagers.
Els won and Mickelson was runner-up. The photo showed the two of them standing next to each other, Els holding a much larger trophy than the one in Mickelson’s arms.
“Do you see how grumpy Phil looks there?’’ Els said with a laugh. “It was my first time ever to the United States. I think we played 18 holes together there that time, and I would never have thought that we’d be playing basically for life … 100th major now.’’
Mickelson recalled details of that round as if it took place three days ago, not 33 years ago.
“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 [years old] hit that shot.
“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, but it sure looks a long time ago.’’
Mickelson and Els are both 47 now.
Els’ first major was the 1989 British Open at Troon, Mickelson’s the 1990 U.S. Open at Medinah.
Els’ first win in a major came in the 1994 U.S. Open. He later won the 1997 U.S. Open and the 2002 British Open, giving him three before Mickelson won his first.
Mickelson’s maiden major victory didn’t come until a decade after Els’ first, at the 2004 Masters.
“I kind of got the monkey off my back, so to speak, early on. Obviously Phil, took him awhile, but when he did get it off his back, he won multiple times,’’ Els said.
“It took me longer to win the first one, so I think I had more of a buildup than Ernie did winning at such a young age,’’ Mickelson said. “When I finally did break through, that was really the highlight. I believed that once I won one, I would win multiple, so getting that first one was really important.’’
Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els remember the first time they played against each other when they were 14 years old.Getty Images
It was a special moment Tuesday, Mickelson and Els sitting with each other, recalling old times.
Each was asked to speak about the other and how each has represented the game.
“Phil reminds me of an Arnold Palmer, a Seve Ballesteros, a bit of Fred Couples — a guy with a lot of talent,’’ Els said. “We all know about his short game and pure genius that he has around the greens. I think his fighting spirit speaks for itself. He’s a pretty good guy and, you know, hell of a golfer.’’
Mickelson lavished praised on Els for his “Els for Autism’’ foundation, began in the name of his autistic son.
“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 … 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.’’
Golf is awash with a flood of new young stars. It’s going to be a tall chore for even the best of them to emulate what Mickelson and Els have brought to the sport for more than the last quarter century.
Happy 100th to both this week.