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GOLF THOMAS BONK

Ernie Wins, Phil Waits

January 23, 2003|THOMAS BONK

One time before the Masters, somebody asked Phil Mickelson if a left-hander had a prayer at Amen Corner, any hope to steer clear of the pine needles long enough to make a difference, any chance to find a green jacket in the middle of all those azaleas and dogwood and pine trees.

Sure, it's possible, Mickelson said, wearing the half-grin he breaks out for his news conferences. After all, he said, the golf ball doesn't know which side you're standing on.

That's quite an insight. The ball is dumber than we are, which is one heck of a relief. The ball also doesn't know where it's going and that makes us even sometimes.

So far, though, we're pretty sure the direction pro golf is heading, and it has taken only about three weeks to figure it out.

Right now, it's Ernie Els' World and chances are that everything is going to revolve around him for a while, maybe until Tiger Woods comes back and then it's going to be Tiger's World again. The way Els has played, he has earned the right to dominate our attention and that has to be considered quite an achievement. Normally, we have the attention span of, say, fescue, so the fact that Els has won his last three tournaments and can make it four in a row if he wins in Singapore this week has produced a buzz you can't help but hear.

Mickelson no doubt has heard it at his home in Rancho Santa Fe. The rest of this week, Mickelson is at work in Phoenix, where he's playing his first PGA Tour event of 2003, only two victories, $1.8 million and one ranking spot behind Els after the first two tournaments of the year.

Yes, Woods is in about the same position, except he's No. 1 by a ton, plus he has won eight majors and led the money list six of his seven full years on the tour, so you have to feel he's going to be the same factor as he always is.

But what about Mickelson?

Els bumped him from second to third in the rankings and probably would be first if rankings were based on any given moment in the year, like right now.

Els has proved he can win in more ways than one. He won the Nedbank Challenge at Sun City by eight shots, won at Kapalua by eight shots and then won the Sony Open in a two-hole playoff. So he can win the runaways and the close ones. Els won on the wide-open Kapalua layout and on the narrow track at Waialae.

So that's what Els has done lately. Meanwhile, Mickelson is well rested. He hasn't played since last year, at Woods' tournament at Sherwood Country Club and when he teamed with David Toms in the World Cup at Puerto Vallarta.

The fact that Mickelson has been out of sight for five weeks and was then quickly obscured by the guy in front of him has clearly contributed to this what-about-Phil? condition.

Here's to believing that Mickelson can answer for himself. He has set what appears to be a comfortable schedule, such as the Phoenix Open, which he has won before, and then the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, which he won last year.

Mickelson hasn't revealed his playing schedule after that, but it's safe to assume he'll be at Pebble Beach, which he has won before, and then the Buick Invitational, which he has won three times.

If nothing else, you have to admit that Mickelson is a model of consistency. He has won at least twice a year every year except one since 1996. He has been runner-up to Woods in the money list the last three years. You don't get to second in the rankings by accident, only by winning and playing well enough to accumulate the points you need.

Mickelson is also consistent in his shortcomings. He has played in 42 majors and hasn't won one. He has been in the ballpark a few times -- third three times at the Masters, second twice at the U.S. Open and a second and a third at the PGA Championship.

As a subtext, Mickelson also has been consistently unable to win a major that Tiger couldn't, something that Els did a year ago at Muirfield when he won his third major, the British Open.

There's no hard reason, except maybe for the fact that he has never done it, to figure that Mickelson won't break through this season.

There are a number of signs pointing that way. He turns 33 in June, so you have to figure he's due. He has his family life in order. He began a conditioning program. The 0-for-42 in majors is such an old story, no one wants to hash it again. And he has got a chance to sneak in because Els has taken his second spot in the rankings and Woods and Els are going to attract most of the attention.

Two years ago at the PGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club, Mickelson put his foot in his mouth when he said he wasn't thinking about how he would win one, but how many he would win. This is the year, Phil, to win one. That would be a good start. And let's face it, you've got a lot of catching up to do.

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