Friday, December 19

A major gap between Els, Mickelson
By David Kraft

More questions for Lefty
Phil Mickelson can explain how to make the ball spin sideways when it lands on the green. He knows the depth chart of nearly every NFL team. He can fly a plane. He can tell you about black holes and constellations.

He has an answer for everything -- except the question on everyone's mind.

Why haven't you won a major?

''I know how to fix it, and I'm trying to resolve that,'' Mickelson said.

There is only one solution.

His next chance to win -- and last chance this year -- starts Thursday in the PGA Championship at Hazeltine National Golf Club, a course Mickelson knows better than most of his contemporaries.

Mickelson has been so good for so long that he qualified for the 1991 U.S. Open at Hazeltine as a 20-year-old amateur and tied for 55th.

''When I played here as an amateur, no one expected me to play well,'' he said.

They do now.

Mickelson is a special talent. He has 21 victories on the PGA Tour, which puts him in elite company -- just not the kind he prefers. Only Harry ''Lighthorse'' Cooper (31) and MacDonald Smith (24) have won more times on tour without claiming a major championship.

And while Mickelson has never held the 54-hole lead in a major, he has finished second or third in five of the last 14 majors, dating to his runner-up finish to Payne Stewart at the 1999 U.S. Open.

The burden of being the best player never to have won a major is getting about as big as the Mall of America.

''I truly feel from the bottom of my heart that he's going to win several majors,'' good friend Tom Lehman said. ''Once he wins, he's going to win a bunch. You can write that down and mark my words on it.''

That won't make the task any easier at Hazeltine.

Mickelson says he doesn't feel any more pressure at the last major of the year than he did in April at the Masters, when he had a whole slate of majors in front of him and every reason to believe this would be the year he broke through.

''The feeling at Augusta is that you're trying to get your game sharp and hopefully contend,'' Mickelson said. ''You know you have something to fall back on. It's almost like playing best ball. You know that if you don't make birdie, your partner still may. You may win one of the last couple.

''The PGA Championship, you don't have that feeling,'' he said. ''The thought process going in is to give every ounce of energy to performing the best you can this week. It's like the last mile in a marathon. You really try to push yourself hard to get all you can out of your game for this one particular week.''

The penalty for hitting the wall? Eight months to ponder what went wrong, and to answer more questions about why he hasn't won the big one.

''There a long time between majors now,'' he said.

In his eyes, zero major titles doesn't mean Phil is a flop.

''I think that it would be wrong to put the whole outlook of a year based on four tournaments,'' he said. ''I certainly would love to win this tournament. I think to have a truly great year, I would need to win here. But I wouldn't look at the year as being a disappointment.''

Maybe not. But without a major, he can look forward to a lot more questions.
-- The Associated Press

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?


Harig: Woods sees no letdown for PGA

Woods keeps it simple as he prepares for another major

Notebook: Strange starts the team-building process

 Shot Selection
Ernie Els looks to make it two majors in a row with a victory at Hazeltine.
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 In Reach?
Phil Mickelson would "very much love" to win this weekend's PGA Championship.
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