Ernie Els Puts Protocol Aside to Give Phil Mickelson a Chance for History


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Phil Mickelson, right, shaking hands with Ernie Els after completing the first round of the British Open on Thursday.

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Matt Dunham/Associated Press

TROON, Scotland — Walking down the 18th fairway in the first round of the 145th British Open on Thursday, Ernie Els knew at once what he had to do and how important it was, transcending competition. Phil Mickelson, whom he was grouped with, had a golf ball just off the fairway and a shot at golf immortality.

If Mickelson could put the ball on the 18th green at Royal Troon and make a birdie putt — both reasonable prospects, as Mickelson already had eight birdies — he would become the first golfer to shoot a round of 62 in a major championship.

Els had been walking along fairways with Mickelson since 1984, when they competed in the 14-year-old division of a world junior championship. Across the subsequent decades, they had sparred for championships around the globe. They are both vying for the Open title this week.

But this was different. Els saw a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity unfolding before him. Step by step, the two longtime competitors walked down the fairway.

Els, the South African known as the Big Easy, stepped closer to Mickelson.

“Come on, buddy,” he said. “You’ve got to shoot 62. You can do it.”

Mickelson smiled. In the middle of a fairway a couple of hundred yards from the Firth of Clyde on Scotland’s western coast, two old rivals were united in a chase for golf history.

“We’ve shared our careers together,” said Mickelson, who grew up in Southern California and, like Els, is 46. “We’ve competed against each other. We’ve pulled for each other.”

After assessing a good lie in the rough, Mickelson fired a crisp 6-iron on a line that was aimed right of the flag, an approach that gave him the flattest and best chance to make a birdie putt. His ball came to rest 18 feet from the hole.

“You’ve got to make it,” Els said to Mickelson as they marched toward the green.

Lee Westwood of England, the third member of the group, was farthest from the hole and putted first. But as Westwood was lining up his putt, Els sidled over to Mickelson yet again.

By protocol, Els, whose second shot to the green left him a 10-foot birdie putt, should have putted last, as he was closest to the hole. But Els was having nothing of etiquette at this moment. Players can choose to putt out of turn. Els told Mickelson that he would putt after Westwood.

That would seed the stage for a 62.

“Phil said to me: ‘Are you sure? Are you sure?’” Els said. “And I said: ‘Yeah, sure. Let me go first and you take your time.’

“I mean, how many times do you get the chance to shoot 62 in a major?”

Mickelson sized up the putt repeatedly along with his caddie, Jim Mackay, who is known as Bones and has been with Mickelson since the early 1990s.

Earlier, striding toward the green, Mickelson had made sure Mackay knew the putt was for 62.

“I said, ‘I need your best read; I don’t know if you know this,’” Mickelson said later, his voice trailing off with a knowing grin. “And he says, ‘Oh, I know.’ So we were on the same page. And we took a look, and we came up with a really good read. I hit a good putt on the right line with the right speed.”

Mickelson aimed a few inches to the right, but the ball moved right to left as if by design, tracking toward the hole from the beginning. At the right lip of the cup, it dipped ever so slightly and then curled around the hole, stopping just beyond it.

At that moment, Mackay, standing 20 feet to the left of Mickelson, threw himself to the ground, flopping onto his back with his feet flying over his head.

Mackay was not available after the round to offer his interpretation of what he had seen, but others on the green did it for him.

“I don’t know how it didn’t go in,” Westwood said. Then, referring to the hole, he added, “There must have been a goalkeeper in there.”

Els winced when asked about the putt that somehow did not go in.

“You couldn’t hit a better putt — right to left and heading for the hole the whole way,” he said. “Unfortunately, it lipped out. I just feel so bad for him.”

Mickelson was disconsolate as he sat at a long table for a news conference. “It was one of the best rounds I’ve ever played,” he said.

Els, standing in the players’ parking lot preparing to leave the grounds, would nod in agreement.

“It was as good a links round of golf as I’ve seen,” he said.

Mickelson kept shaking his head.

“Heartbreaking,” he said.

But nonetheless, Mickelson recognized what else had happened in the middle of the 18th fairway at Royal Troon.

Sometimes, even in the high-stakes modern era of sports, when a once straightforward contest can instead seem like a clash of multimillionaires and their entrepreneurial brands, the basic elements of sportsmanship can rise above all else.

For an intense, riveting few minutes on Thursday afternoon, Ernie Els wanted to see the first 62 in a major golf championship almost as much as Phil Mickelson did.

“We’ve had a lot of moments that we’ve shared together,” Mickelson said. “And that was another one that was really fun. He’s a special guy.”

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