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A major gap between Els, Mickelson

8/14/2002

CHASKA, Minn. -- Funny, isn't it, how public perceptions can be so darned fickle. Compare and contrast Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson, for instance.

For Els, his golf game and his general outlook on life both have new focus, thanks to his scrambling, nerve-wracking playoff win at the British Open last month.

"I'm trying to win all four (majors) at least once," Els said Tuesday as he prepared for the PGA Championship. "That's my ultimate goal."

For Mickelson, majorless despite universal acclaim as the second best golfer on the planet, his game plan this week at Hazeltine National is the same as it has been for the past three years as major championships approach.

"I feel as though I'm ready to come out on top, finally, in one of these tournaments," Mickelson said. "Hopefully, I'll be in contention on Sunday."

Els and Mickelson are never far down the line in the post-Tiger Woods discussion of favorites at majors. Both have won twice this year on the PGA Tour. Els won the Genuity Classic in March, then won the British in July. Mickelson won the Bob Hope in January and the Greater Hartford Open in June.

Mickelson is second on the PGA Tour money list with $3,686,571. Els is third with $3,041,020. Not surprisingly, they're also second and third in the world rankings.

At Ladbrookes, the British online sports book, Els is a 10-1 pick this week (second in the field). Mickelson is 14-1 as the third choice. Woods is the favorite at 7-to-4.

Two men. Two similar seasons (and careers, for that matter; Mickelson has won 21 times; Els 18).

Yet, when play gets underway in the 84th PGA Championship on Thursday, they bring two completely different reputations to the first tee. Els plays the part of a three-time major champion in search of more. Mickelson is cast as the no-time major champ who keeps coming up short in the big ones.

Since winning at the British Open in a playoff, Els has played just once, tying for fourth at The International. He's been reveling in the Open title, celebrating with the Claret Jug at his homes in London and Orlando (he's enjoyed "some really cool, cold drinks" in it, he said).

"My career is turning in a pretty good direction now," Els said. "Always, when you win a major championship, you feel like you can get to the next level and that's where I want to get to. I feel very good."

Mickelson, who knows better than anyone that he's winless in 37 major championship starts as a professional (41 counting his amateur career), struggled to a tie for 66th at the British Open, then missed the cut at The International. He tied for 29th last week at the Buick Open, but was generally pleased with his play.

"I've continued to play at a consistent level, which was my goal two years ago, to try and get in contention more regularly," Mickelson said. "So I would not look at (not winning a major) as a disappointment, as much as a stepping stone to the future."

But Els and Mickelson are both smart enough -- and have been around the game long enough -- to know that their seasons, while somewhat similar on paper, are anything but in the court of public perception.

"There's a very simple resolution of it," Mickelson said. "If I get tired of it, I know how to fix it. And I'm trying to resolve that. For now, it's just something I need to accept until I'm finally able to break through and win."

Quite different from Els' take on his own game: "I think the package is a little bit better than it used to be."

Fickle fates? In golf?

Nah.