(Reuters) – Tiger Woods’s decade-long grip on golf curtailed the ambitions of many of the top players in his generation, but Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els have more reason than most to feel aggrieved.
The pair will become the 13th and 14th players to compete in at least 100 majors when they reach the century mark at the PGA Championship on Thursday.
They are the second and third most successful players of their generation — Mickelson with five major victories and Els with four — but their achievements have been overshadowed by Woods, winner of 14 majors between 1997 and 2008.
Two days before the start of the final major of the year, both America’s Mickelson and South Africa’s Els were able to reflect on how full their trophy cabinets might be if Woods had taken up another sport.
Els had already won one major — the 1994 U.S. Open — by the time Woods burst onto the scene and blew away the field by 12 shots at the 1997 Masters, a performance that jolted the South African’s confidence.
“I was ready to win quite a few (majors) and then when Tiger came in ’97, and him winning the Masters in the way he did, that kind of threw me off a little bit,” Els said on Tuesday at Quail Hollow.
“I thought I was really one of the top players, which I was, but that was a pretty special display of golf.”Els regrouped and won the 1997 U.S. Open two months later, but then finished runner-up to his nemesis Woods in consecutive majors in 2000.
“I had quite a few run-ins with him in majors,” Els said. “It wasn’t really very close, but I finished second to him many times.
“Personally, I could have obviously won a couple more, without him around, but he’s so special, and he absolutely changed the game.
“He got us to really elevate our games, brought so much more attention to the sport, and obviously a lot more dollars to play for. So we’ve got to thank him.”
Mickelson searched for the positives rather than dwell on what might have been.
“Had Tiger not come around, 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,” said the 47-year-old Californian.
While Mickelson has one PGA Championship victory, in 2005, Els is still seeking his first, but he has not given up.
“It’s hard to believe maybe for you guys that at 47 I’ve still got the hunger for it, but I really do,” he said.
“I haven’t played my best in the last couple of years, so I’m really in the process of rebuilding my game and getting myself going again.”
Mickelson, meanwhile, said he was still enjoying the challenge of trying to beat the world’s best.
“For me, golf has always been very therapeutic,” he said. “It’s been a great way to calm my mind and have a great direction and something to focus on. It’s been a huge part of my life ever since I was a couple of years old.”
(Reporting by Andrew Both in Cary, North Carolina; Editing by Toby Davis)