Who would have thought that when a great rivalry finally emerged in golf it would not involve Tiger Woods? But that's exactly where we are now. When the men tee it up in the PGA Championship, the compelling question won't be centered on when Woods will get his "A" game back, but rather on which player will get the best of the other in the captivating competition that has developed between Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson. While Tiger was playing the role of Jack and waiting for his Arnie to come along, Ernie and Phil stole the spotlight. They are, quite simply, the two best players in the world right now.
Last month at Royal Troon, Els and Mickelson went into the final round with a chance to win. Both carded final-round 68s at Royal Troon, and the fact Todd Hamilton walked off with the claret jug did nothing to detract from the best rivalry the game has known since Nick Faldo and Greg Norman a decade ago.
This year, Mickelson has won the Masters, was second in the U.S. Open and third in the British Open. Els was second in the Masters, tied for ninth in the U.S. Open -- despite an 80 in the final round -- and was second to Hamilton in a four-hole playoff at the British. Woods, meanwhile, had his best finish in a major this year with a T-9 at Troon.
Since Woods won his last major at the 2002 U.S. Open he has gotten Rich Beemed in the 2002 PGA and Ben Curtised in the 2003 British Open. But those are the only two serious runs the current World Ranking No. 1 has made in the last nine majors. Els, meanwhile, won the 2002 British Open and has been in the top-10 in six of the eight majors played since. Mickelson was third in the 2003 Masters before his 1-2-3 major run this year.
Els now has finished second in six majors, a damning statistic were it not for his three career Grand Slam wins. In the post-Jack Nicklaus era -- the Golden Bear won his last major at the 1986 Masters -- there have been 74 majors played and only Woods (eight) and Faldo (six) have won more majors than Els in that time. (Nick Price and the late Payne Stewart also have three.)
Mickelson, meanwhile, has now finished second or third in a major 10 times. And if he didn't have a green jacket hanging in his closet we'd certainly be bashing him today for not getting the job done at Royal Troon. Instead, we marvel now at his consistency. Funny how that works.
The Els-Mickelson rivalry isn't likely to equal Hogan-Snead (a combined 16 major titles), or Nicklaus-Palmer (25), or Nicklaus-Watson (26), but it could very well become another Faldo-Norman (eight). What will Phil do next? And Ernie? We will find out at Whistling Straits next month. Maybe Tiger will even show up. But the way things have been going lately, it's more exciting without him.
Ron Sirak is the executive editor of Golf World magazine