The South African, a lanky, blond more formally known as Ernest back then, had come to San Diego, where Mickelson was born and raised, to play in the Junior World Championship.
Els, who was making his first trip to the United States, ended up winning the tournament, beating Mickelson by three strokes. Future PGA TOUR stars David Toms won the 15-17 age group while the 8-year-old Tiger Woods captured the 9-10s.
On Thursday at the Quail Hollow Club, some 34 years later, Els and Mickelson will tee off in their 100th major championship. Only 12 other players have reached that milestone, led by Jack Nicklaus at 164.
And Davis Love III – who will join Mickelson and Els in the World Golf Hall of Fame next month — is hot on their heels, making his 99th major start this week.
On Tuesday, though, with a giant “birthday” cake waiting to be cut to the left of the dais, the focus was clearly on the 47-year-olds. Between them, Mickelson and Els have won nine majors, five going to the former and four to the latter.
“I think we played 18 holes together there that time, and I would never have thought that we’d be playing, you know, basically for life, 100th major now,” Els recalled. “It started in a very nice, sunny beautiful place in San Diego. We’re still going here, quite a few years.”
Mickelson feels similarly.
“It just goes by so fast; you don’t think about it,” he said. “It’s been a lot of fun. We get to play golf, what most people do on vacation, as our job, and it’s the greatest job in the world.
“Every time I play in (a major), I remember back when I was a kid, competing in my yard against the greats, trying to beat them for major titles, and we both have been fortunate to have won some. I know we both want to win a couple more.”
Els’ and Mickelson’s record of consistency and competitiveness – one that includes major championships won in their 40s — is not lost on Rory McIlroy. The 28-year-old who is making his 36th major start this week.
“Hopefully I can get to that number,” the Northern Irishman said. “… That’s pretty impressive — and especially with how late they have won some majors. … ??“If you look at their golf swings, it’s sort of quite loose and long and languid. They have had a couple injuries here and there, knee injuries and whatever else, but to be able to keep that run going for such a long period of time, it is impressive.”
Els says Mickelson reminds him of an Arnold Palmer or Seve Ballesteros with a little Fred Couples thrown in for good measure. He says his friend has “pure genius” around the greens and a knack for extracting himself from the most difficult of situations. ??“I think his fighting spirit speaks for itself,” Els said. “You know, you guys were pretty hard on him early on in his career, when you didn’t quite pull it off, and when you did, as you say, you’ve won quite a few of these major tournaments. That means he’s got a good fight within himself.”
Mickelson countered by talking about Els’ philanthropic endeavors, which he indicated are an impressive legacy. Plus, that trademark swing that earned Els his nickname as the “Big Easy.”
“As far as a player, obviously he’s got the sweetest, smoothest, most beautiful, aesthetically pleasing golf swing you could ever imagine,” Mickelson said. “It was a pleasure to watch. It was tough to emulate.”
Els made his maiden start first, qualifying, with his brother on the bag, while still an amateur for the 1989 Open Championship at the age of 19 at Royal Troon. Mark Calcavecchia won that year, beating Wayne Grady and Greg Norman in a playoff. Els’ practice-round partners included Nick Price, Mark McNulty and Tony Johnstone.
“Unfortunately, I missed the cut that year by two shots,” Els said. “But I felt like, I wouldn’t say I belonged but I felt like I could play as a professional golfer.”
Els would go on to win The Open Championship, which features a links style of golf he enjoys more than anything, twice. He also captured U.S. Open titles in 1994 and ’97 before he’d hit the big 3-0.
Mickelson made his major championship debut a year after Els did at the U.S. Open at Medinah. The big lefthander who had won the Northern Telecom Open as an amateur turned 20 that week as Hale Irwin beat Mike Donald in an 18-hole playoff.
“I remember 8-under got into a playoff,” Mickelson said. “I ended up birdieing the par 5 (No. 14). … I got to 3- or 4-under par, and I actually felt like if I made a few more birdies, I might have a chance. And of course I followed up with a few bogeys and that was that.??“But it was a different experience to play under U.S. Open conditions, major championship conditions. Even though it rained, it was still a different feel.”
Unlike Els, who earned his major breakthrough in just his eighth start, Mickelson had to wait until the 2004 Masters – his 47th – to finally win one of golf’s crown jewels. He has won four more since, though, and has six runner-up finishes in the U.S. Open, which is the only major standing in his way of a career Grand Slam.
As much as he’d like to win the U.S. Open, though, Mickelson actually considers his 2013 win at The Open his crowning achievement. He was 43 at the time and only had two top-10s in 18 previous starts in the game’s oldest major.
“I thought that was going to be the toughest one for me, given the conditions and links golf, bouncing the ball up; and to be able to come out on top there was kind of a career-defining achievement, I feel,” he explained.
Mickelson enters his 100th major with four top-10s but he hasn’t won a tournament since the 2013 Open Championship. Els is still looking for his first top-10 of the season and last hoisted a trophy at Royal Lytham & St. Annes in 2012.
Both come to Quail Hollow for the PGA with the same kind of desire and self-confidence that marked their first major starts. The challenge is there, and it’s something both have risen to many times during their careers.
“You know, it’s hard to believe maybe for you guys that at 47, I’ve still got the hunger for it, but I really do,” Els said. “Hopefully I can get something going, get some momentum going, and who knows.”