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Saturday, June 19, 2010

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Els And Mickelson - Must-See On Moving Day

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By Dave Shedloski

Pebble Beach, Calif. - There is earth shifting here on the Monterey Peninsula, as surely as the ground moves along the fault lines, creating tremors and shaking up foundations.

When the third round of the 110th U.S. Open commences Saturday at Pebble Beach Golf Links, we might well start to understand how much churning there is, how much old can become new.

Northern Ireland's Graeme McDowell sits alone in first place midway through, with high hopes of ending Europe's 40-year-drought at the U.S. Open. But two strokes behind are two men who bring baggage and savage hunger to this annual passion play.

Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson were once young lions in the game, who now have reached milestone with their 40th birthdays, a juncture where the clock is clearly ticking louder before it winds down on their era.

The problem is, it is not their era, which has been their eternal challenge. Instead, the era has belonged to Tiger Woods, still the No. 1 player in the world, but lately vulnerable after a decade of dominance.

Woods, who won the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach by a record 15 strokes, may still have a say in how this championship is decided, but the two men whom he has blotted out most tellingly with his brilliance - symbolized by 14 major titles - seem on the cusp of breaking out of his long shadow.

Mickelson, a five-time U.S. Open runner-up, won this year's Masters, which was Woods' comeback tournament after his self-imposed sabbatical because of complicated personal issues best left unexplained - mainly because they are nearly impossible to explain.

And after a mesmerizing 66 on Friday at Pebble Beach, the low round of the tournament by three strokes, Mickelson sits at one under par, just two behind McDowell.

Els, meanwhile, shot 69 on Friday, playing in the presence of Woods the first two rounds, and he, too, is one under par for the championship. Having been the runner-up to Woods 10 years ago, Els must have found satisfaction- and a real confidence boost - in besting Woods by five strokes over two rounds.

A victory by either Mickelson or Els, and they will make their own history, while perhaps exorcising some of the pain and disappointment they've swallowed while Woods hoisted ever greater shares of hardware.

Els, who won the last of his three majors at the 2002 British Open, can win a third U.S. Open title, which would put him in some special company of players with three or more Open wins. A victory for Mickelson would give him the first two legs of the Grand Slam, and only five men have ever embarked on that journey, most recently Woods.

Certain Hall of Fame material, Els and Mickelson aren't convinced that they need their records embellished.

"When I look back now, it's amazing when I think I was 24 when I won this event at Oakmont. I must have been out of my head to think I could have won at 24," said Els, who has two tournament victories this year and seems more comfortable with his game than at any time since he finished in the top-10 in all four majors in 2004. "And then the expectations are there, obviously. I probably fell victim to that a little bit because I had numerous chances of winning majors, which I didn't. I've won three and I look back at it now, I'm pleased to have done that.

"Now not too many people give you too many chances winning a major after 40. But I feel good. I feel my game's there. I'd like to think I've got quite a few more left. If I have to stop playing golf now I've got to be pretty pleased with what I've done."

Before the championship Mickelson talked about winning "my National Open." But he wasn't convinced that his legacy as a player is somehow compromised should he not win the U.S. Open. The hole in his resume isn't a concern.

"You could say that about any player about some tournament," Mickelson said. "Nicklaus never won in Canada. We could talk about Arnold not winning a PGA. I'd rather talk about the four Masters he won, or the win he had at Cherry Hills or what he did at Birkdale He's done so many great things, I like to look at that. Sure, the pessimist is going to look at all the things he hasn't done or I haven't done or anything else, but I don't choose to look at my career or anybody else's that way."

Yet what's clear is that these two great players - who have to think what trophies they might have collected had not Woods come along - are still highly motivated. They have changed their games, refined their putting strokes, put in the hours of work as if they are just beginning their careers.

Perhaps they are, in a way, starting over.

They both embarked on their professional careers before Woods emerged as a singularly spectacular talent. They have endured some disappointments, but they now seem better for having gone through a kind of purgatory.

Only one of them can win this weekend. What transpires at Pebble Beach today and Sunday might be a script where both come up short. But they are figures worth watching and following. What they do, especially today, on what is traditionally moving day at the Open, could really shake things up.

Dave Shedloski is a freelance writer whose work frequently appears on USGA Web sites.


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