On a rainy Tuesday in the Piedmont, two days before the last big golf tournament of the year, there was nothing finer in Carolina than to hear Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els talk about reaching the century mark — and Rory McIlroy talk about Phil and Ernie, along with some comments of his own game.
When the 99th PGA Championship begins Thursday at Quail Hollow Country Club, Mickelson and Els each will be playing in his 100th major championship, a total achieved by only 12 others and topped by the 164 of the great Jack Nicklaus.
“So 100,” McIlroy said, “that’s more than 20 years of playing majors. Wow! That’s pretty impressive. Especially how late [in their careers] they have won some majors, Ernie the [British] Open in 2012, Phil in 2013. Hopefully I can get to that number.”
The number at the moment for McIlroy is 7-1, his odds as favorite for this PGA, even though he doesn’t have a win in any tournament this year, major or minor.
“I think it’s partly to do with the upturn in form I’ve had the last few weeks,” he said, “and my history on this course, a couple of wins, beaten in a playoff.”
Indeed, a fourth in the British Open three weeks ago and a fifth in the Bridgestone last weekend have persuaded the bookmakers that McIlroy — healthy, wealthy and four months a married man — is ready to win a third PGA and fifth major.
McIlroy, 28, is some two decades younger than Mickelson and Els, both 47 and both as willing to deal in memory as possibility. They competed against each other for the first time in 1984 at the Junior World Championship in San Diego, Els traveling from South Africa to the U.S. for the first time where he would beat Mickelson, the hometown kid.
“We’re still going here,” Els said. “Quite a few years.’’
“I feel as though had Tiger not come around,” offered Mickelson, “I don’t feel I would have pushed myself to achieve what I ended up achieving, because he forced everybody to get the best out of themselves. He forced everybody to work a little harder.”
Els had another viewpoint.
“I’m a little different from Phil,” he admitted. “I won a couple [majors] early on. I was ready to win quite a few, if you know what I mean. And then when Tiger came in ’97 and him winning the Masters in the way that he did it threw me off a little bit. I thought I was really one of the top players, which I was, but that was a pretty special display of golf.”
A display some thought shook Els forever at Augusta, where he never won.
Nor has McIlroy taken a Masters, although he said that issue need not be discussed for a while ... at least until the end of this tournament.
The PGA officially announced Tuesday that starting in 2019 the event will shift from August to May, setting up four straight months of majors — April, Masters; May, PGA; June, U.S. Open; July , British Open — and just as significantly moving golf away from football.
“I think that’s one of the things that benefits the NFL so much,” said McIlroy, who may be a Northern Irishman but well knows his U.S. sports. “They play, whatever it is, 16, 18 weeks a year. Then everybody’s still talking about it. The talking of what’s going to happen next season.
“I’ve always thought an offseason in golf would be good. Not just for the players — to get a little bit of rest and work on their games, whatever — but just from a fan perspective. To create a little hype before the season starts again.”