Major talk with Ernie & Phil

09 Aug

Ernie and Phil spoke to the world’s media in a specially arranged joint press conference during the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow. Here we publish a transcript of the event.

JOHN DEVER: Now it’s time to take a moment to celebrate a career achievement that speaks to the greatest variety of excellence, and that is sustained success. In this game of golf, one could argue that there’s precious few achievements more impressive than playing in 100 major championships. And I’m pleased to be joined by two individuals who have played in 99 majors to date, and on Thursday here at Quail Hollow are slated to reach triple digits. They will join an esteemed list of legendary champions to play in a hundred.

And they are to my immediate right, Ernie Els, four-time Major Champion and on my far right, five-time Major Champion Phil Mickelson. Gentlemen, happy 100th to you both on reaching this historical marker (laughter). We’ll get to the majors in a moment, but first we want to go back in time just real quickly all the way back to 1984, the Junior World Golf Championships in San Diego. Ernie, you had the audacity to beat the hometown kid for the title. Do you remember anything from that week (showing photo below)?

ERNIE ELS: Do you see how grumpy Phil looks there (chuckling)? It was quite a while ago, I can tell you. We had a great time. It was my first time ever to the United States and what a place to go play golf at in San Diego. I guess that was the first time we met. We played; 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. It started in a very nice, sunny beautiful place in San Diego. We’re still going here, quite a few years.

PHIL MICKELSON: I remember that final round. I remember a shot you hit in the final round on No. 3. It was a par 5, and you had it about 20 yards short of the green, 30 yards short of the green and you hit this little skipping, spinning wedge shot that checked up about a foot from the hole and that’s when I knew you were going to be a good player because I had not seen anybody else at 14 hit that shot. You went on to win that day. Beat me and the rest of the field. It’s amazing that we’ve played together and against each other for so many years. It doesn’t seem that long ago from those days, but it sure looks a long time ago (laughter).

JOHN DEVER: Let’s talk major championships. That’s why we’re here. When you see a name like this right here (see below), with only 12 legendary names, and you’ll soon be joining that, what kind of emotions come to mind as you prepare to join it?

The 100 Majors Club
1. Jack Nicklaus – 164 majors

2. Gary Player – 150 majors
3. Tom Watson – 145 majors
4. Arnold Palmer – 142 majors
5. Raymond Floyd – 127 majors
6. Sam Snead – 119 majors
7. Ben Crenshaw – 118 majors
8. Gene Sarazen – 112 majors
9. Tom Kite – 109 majors
10. Mark O’Meara – 109 majors
11. Bernhard Langer – 104 majors
12. Sir Nick Faldo – 100 majors
13. Ernie Els – 100 majors
14. Phil Mickelson – 100 majors

ERNIE ELS: That’s a heck of a list right there. Those are all our mentors, our heroes. They are all on that list. You know, the guy right at the top, obviously he won the most majors of the whole list. But it means that we’ve done it, you know, properly, in a good way. To be on that list and looking at those people’s careers is unbelievable. You know, again, to go back to 1984 to where we are today in 2017, to look at that list, I think it will take a while to kind of sink in for the two of us. But it’s pretty cool.

JOHN DEVER: Phil, same question. Maybe when did you become aware you were closing in on 100?

PHIL MICKELSON: Last week, yeah. Somebody told me last week that we have our 100th major coming up. It just goes by so fast; you don’t think about it. 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. And playing major championships is what we dreamt about as a kid. Every time I play in one, 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.

JOHN DEVER: Let’s go back to the beginning, Phil. Let’s look at 1990 U.S. Open at Medinah. Do you have any memories from that first major championship of yours, Phil, or any fun pairings or anything that stands out from that first week?

PHIL MICKELSON: Yeah, I remember 8-under got into a playoff. Hale Irwin got to eight and Mike Donald bogeyed the last hole. I ended up birdieing the par 5. It was 14, I believe. 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.

JOHN DEVER: Ernie, talk about Troon in ’89. Any memorable pairings or sage advice shared with you that week (showing picture of Ernie at Royal Troon, below left)?

ERNIE ELS: It was a pretty cool haircut, wasn’t it (laughter)? Should probably hide that one! You see the wooden driver there? Those were the good old days. I played practice rounds with Nick Price, Mark McNulty, Tony Johnson. And I felt good about playing in the event. I remember my brother caddied for me that week. We qualified at a golf course nearby, and actually we had to birdie the last hole to get into the field. That was pretty cool. Unfortunately, I missed the cut that year by two shots. But I felt like, you know, I wouldn’t say I belonged but I felt like I could play as a professional golfer. I was still an amateur in ’89. Playing on some of my favourite turf, which is links, and playing my first major on a links-style course was pretty cool.

JOHN DEVER: I’m going to ask you both this question. What gave you a bigger sense of accomplishment in your major championship career, was it breaking through and winning that first one or being a multiple Major Champion?

ERNIE ELS: Just to be able to compete and to be able to be in contention; I can’t tell you the feeling that gives us as players to actually have a chance to actually be able to win one of these events. You know, obviously, Phil has had a great time winning five. I’ve won four. But we’ve been in the hunt, so to speak, many, many other times and didn’t quite come off. But you know, it’s a hell of a thrill. It’s what we play for, what we practice for; and you want to pull off great shots in the bigger stage. So ’94, ’97 was obviously a great time for me. I was very young, so I kind of got the monkey off my back, so to speak, early on. Obviously Phil, took him a while, but when he did get it off his back, he won multiple times. Yeah, but it’s a wonderful feeling to be in contention.

JOHN DEVER: Same question for you, first or second, which was a greater legacy builder?

PHIL MICKELSON: Took me longer to win the first one, so I think I had more of a build-up than Ernie did winning at such a young age. When I finally did break through, that was really the highlight. I believed that once I won one, I would win multiple, so getting that first one was really important. You can see from the picture there, I was fairly overjoyed with that first win.

JOHN DEVER: Before we hit the floor for questions, I want to ask you one question about each other and then we’ll get to the professionals here.Phil, when you think about Ernie’s career and what he represents, what’s the first thing that comes to your mind?

PHIL MICKELSON: It’s changed over time. Now I think about what he’s done for Els for Autism. I think that’s the legacy he’s leaving where he’s changing the lives and impacting a lot of lives that go through autism. His facility that he built is just astounding. I think that’s kind of the legacy that I see when I think of Ernie Els. As far as a player, obviously he’s got the sweetest, smoothest, most beautiful, aesthetically pleasing golf swing you could ever imagine. It was a pleasure to watch. It was tough to emulate.

JOHN DEVER: On the cusp of 100, what do you admire about Phil and his career to this moment?

ERNIE ELS: Phil reminds me of a player of, an Arnold Palmer, a Seve Ballesteros, a bit of Fred Couples; a guy with a lot of talent. He talks about my short game, but we all know about his short game. And really, the pure genius that he has around the greens. And sometimes, in some places he hits the ball, people want to see how he gets out of there. And 90 per cent of the time, he gets out of there and probably will make a birdie.

I think his fighting spirit speaks for itself. 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.

And just looking at Phil’s family, obviously our kids are pretty similar in age. They have remained friends for a long time as we have competed against each other. He’s a pretty good guy and, you know, hell of a golfer.

Q. Johnny Harris has talked about the feedback you’ve given constructively over the past few years. Can you talk about the changes here and how you think it might affect the tournament?

PHIL MICKELSON: I think the changes have turned out incredibly well because it’s actually made the golf course a little bit tougher, but it’s done it in a very subtle way, rather than overdoing it, over-contouring the greens, over-contouring things. It’s actually become more subtle. The beauty and the challenge of the golf course has come out.

It’s gotten a little bit longer by reducing one of the par 5s and making No. 1 a difficult par 4, as opposed to a birdie hole. You’re going to see us eliminate 4- or 5-under par over the course of four rounds right there. You put in rough now that is extremely challenging, rough around the greens, and you’ve got a major championship that a score very close to par is going to end up winning.

Q. You have two legs of the career slam, and Phil, you’re one of three players who will spend the next three majors chasing that fourth leg of the career slam. Just curious where the two of you rank that accomplishment and what would it mean to attain that?

PHIL MICKELSON: Well, it’s been my kind of career goal that I set out when I was a kid to try to win all four because it shows what a complete player you are to play under all those different conditions. I think that’s the real challenge because each major provides such a different set of challenges.

But the greatest accomplishment for me, whether I win a U.S. Open or not, was winning the British Open. 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.

ERNIE ELS: I agree. To win all four, one, you’re going to need a special talent and a lot of determination. We are not all suited, as Phil says, to all the conditions we are faced with in the Masters, U.S. Open, The Open Championship and the PGA. They are all very different. You have to travel and then the last three are played, you know, very close together. To get the right form and all of that stuff is pretty tough.

In Phil’s case, obviously he needs the U.S. Open; finished second six times I think now. I think you know how to win it. That will be really great. There’s only five guys on that list, and that’s almost like the Holy Grail in our sport to win all four at least once.

It’s been done in tennis, I think, more times than in golf, and that just shows you how difficult it is in our game to emulate that.

Q. If I could ask both of you these questions. What single shot in any of those 99 majors are you most proud of? And secondly, do you guys sometimes wonder how many more majors you might have won if Tiger had taken up another sport?

PHIL MICKELSON: For me the shot out of the trees in 2010 at Augusta is the shot I remember. Feel like it was the most memorable. It was the shot that was either going to win me the tournament or cost me the tournament, and I was able to pull it off and ended up winning it.

I feel as though 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. He forced everybody to work a little bit harder. He forced everybody to look at fitness as a big part of the game of golf, and I think that’s actually helped me with longevity, working with my trainer, Sean Cochran, for 14 years now, trying to stay flexible and so forth to elongate the career. And I feel like that’s been a big part of it and he was a big influence on that. So I don’t think I would have had the same level of success had he not come around.

ERNIE ELS: Most memorable shot. That’s a tough one, man. I remember the putt on the 72nd hole in ’94 and ’97 were little knee-knockers and I made those. But I think the most special shot was probably the 17th hole at Congressional (pictured below). You guys still think that I pulled it (laughter); I still say, you know, it’s my natural draw shot in there. But that was a special shot. I didn’t make the birdie, but obviously the other guys made bogeys there.

And on the second point, Tiger, I’m a little different from Phil. I won a couple early on, so I was kind of, 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 he did, you know, that kind of 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.

I had quite a few run-ins with him in majors. It wasn’t really very close, but I finished second to him many times. Personally, I could have obviously won a couple more, but as Phil says, this guy was so special, 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. But, you know, I could have had a couple more, definitely, without him around (smiles).

Q. We could see how much the 2002 Open meant to you at Muirfield. I’m just wondering if through the years when you’ve had a chance to reflect on it, how satisfying was that first Open win?

ERNIE ELS: It was, very, because my record is pretty good. In all four majors, The Open is kind of my favourite one. I really had it won by after 12, 13 holes; actually 12 holes, and then I pulled it in the bunker on 13. Although I got it up-and-down, I remember clearly, I started getting a little bit more uptight, where I was really relaxed before that tee shot. I really missed a lot of shots and obviously 16 was a big double-bogey. But then I really pulled it together and made birdie on 17 and then parred 18 to get into the playoff and then got fortunate. That was a huge win, really. Huge win. I got fortunate there and I knew it.

Q. Both of you earlier mentioned how special that first major was and how important it was for your career. Do you have any advice for some of these younger players now, like Hideki Matsuyama, who are on the cusp of getting that first major and dealing with both the internal pressure and external pressure of that first major? And do you see Hideki coming through and breaking that barrier soon?

ERNIE ELS: Hideki is a friend of mine. He’s been on The Presidents Cup and I’ve played a lot of golf with him. I’m actually playing with him tomorrow and Friday. I’ve been kind of on his back a little bit, pushing him a bit, because I really feel he’s got something really special there. When he’s on, his ball-striking is incredible, like he showed on Sunday. Obviously you’ve got to pull it all together, and you need a little bit of fortune going your way, also, which you’re going to need this week. It’s such a tough, long, heavy golf course. But he’s got the length and he’s got the game now and he’s got the confidence. But as we all know, it’s not the easiest thing in the world to win a major championship. You need a lot of factors to go your way.

PHIL MICKELSON: I agree, yeah (laughter).

JOHN DEVER: Concur.

Q. Jack said about a year ago that one of the hardest things he faced when he started turning around 40 or so was knowing what it took to play at a high level and asking himself whether he had the energy and desire to do it. Have you found that to be the case? And as both of you have gone about and continued to compete with such a good attitude, how have you done it?

PHIL MICKELSON: I really enjoy the challenge. I really enjoy the challenge of trying to win again, and going through a lull and not having my best stuff and then trying to get it back. I’ve actually had a lot of fun this last year and a half, two years, working with Andrew Getson, trying to get back on top. It’s been a fun challenge. I think if you enjoy the challenge and enjoy the process, you enjoy putting in the work and you enjoy putting in the time, I think you end up doing it.

But for me, golf has always been very therapeutic. It’s been a great way to kind of 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 years old and started playing. I always enjoy that challenge, and so it’s kind of an internal drive, I guess.

ERNIE ELS: Yeah, that’s a brilliant way to look at it. It’s how you, yourself, look at the challenge. Obviously percentages are a little bit against you. We’ve both won a major in our 40s. So we’ve kind of done that, you know. But you want to continue doing that.

But for me personally, like Phil, I think to keep the niggles of the body to a minimum, that is very important obviously because at 47, you know, you need everything to work properly. That’s a challenge. And then me personally, I haven’t played my best stuff in the last couple of years, so I’m really in the process of rebuilding my game and getting myself going again. 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. Hopefully I can get something going, get some momentum going, and who knows.

Q. With regard to Jordan and what he’s been doing at his age, can you put your finger on what makes him special, for starters, and as both guys who have been in pursuit of career Grand Slams, just the magnitude of at his age having a chance to complete that?

PHIL MICKELSON: He has that intangible of when he doesn’t have his best stuff, like Hartford, the back nine, to still find a way to win. When you say put your finger on it, you can’t really identify and say it’s this or it’s that. It’s just that indescribable trait that he has to find a way, to find a way to get it done, find the will to win.

He showed it again at The Open and he continues to show it. When you get him near the lead, he’s extremely tough to beat because he just finds a way to get it out. It’s just that intangible that’s hard to describe, but you can see it.

ERNIE ELS: Yeah, he’s a special guy. He’s won some events really showing some grit. The U.S. Open he won, he got a bit fortunate with what happened with DJ on the 18th green. But you know, the way he won the Masters and at The Open a couple of weeks ago, it’s just special stuff. You can’t really describe it, as Phil says, but it’s there. The guy finds a way of getting it done.

You know, he’s not the longest hitter out there. He’s not the most accurate, so forth, but he’s got an overall game that he’s really comfortable with. He’s not trying to get more length out of the tee ball, but he’s really playing his game and grinding it out. That’s a great way to win golf tournaments.

Q. This is a question for both of you. Last week Jordan said that he can play this week freely because with any luck, he’ll have 30 more of these. And I’m wondering, Phil, the ’99 U.S. Open when you got second, I’m sure you were thinking the same thing; and Ernie at the ’95 PGA after playing three brilliant rounds, you’re probably thinking, well, this is just a small setback. How do you take that balance between not putting too much pressure on yourself and yet feeling urgency; that maybe the window isn’t as big as it appears?

ERNIE ELS: Well, I mean, when you start out in your 20s, you’re pretty green and you’re pretty confident. As Phil said, I have the same dream to win all four.

These guys, not everything is going to go your way. I mean, even the greatest, Jack Nicklaus, I think he’s got the most top 3s of any other player, and he won the most majors. So just to almost get yourself in that position and keep doing it. You’re going to have some that’s going to fall away, but you keep putting yourself in there, you’re going to win your fair share.

I mean, that’s the only way you can look at it. You’ve got to just keep grinding and almost not think about how many you want to win, what you want to do. Just kind of go out there and put yourself in position.

PHIL MICKELSON: (Nods in agreement.)

JOHN DEVER: Thank you both for your time and congratulations on reaching this little plateau.

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