Els says Mickelson the man to beat at Augusta

The Big Easy sees a shift at the Masters.

After Phil Mickelson’s second Masters victory since 2004, Ernie Els says Lefty may have eclipsed Tiger Woods as the golfer to beat at Augusta National.

“I think Phil has got the game there now,” Els said on Wednesday.

Els was the only one of golf’s “Big Five”—Mickelson, Woods, Vijay Singh and Retief Goosen—competing at the Verizon Heritage, which starts on Thursday.

Els has witnessed Mickelson’s Masters’ rise. Mickelson’s breakthrough major came two years ago at Augusta National when his 18-foot birdie putt on the final hole sealed a one-stroke victory over Els.

Then last week, Els was paired with Mickelson for the first 36 holes as he steadily played himself into contention. Els was impressed with Mickelson’s control off the tee, the trajectory of his irons and his continued wizardry around the greens.

Plus, Mickelson is no longer burdened with the question of when he’ll win Augusta.

“He just goes out and goes about his business,” Els said.
“So I think Phil, almost more than Tiger, has got more Masters in him, maybe.”

Mickelson will have to double his Masters’ output to catch up with Woods’ four green jackets. And both have work to do to tie Jack Nicklaus’ record six Masters titles.

Chris DiMarco doesn’t see a shift at the top at Augusta. He lost in a playoff to Woods there last year and says the course features are ready-made for Woods.

“Phil is a great player. I have a lot of respect for his game, it’s awesome,” DiMarco said. “But that course sets up great for Tiger. If [Woods] putted at all like he normally putts ... it would’ve been closer.”

Els is trying to close in on his elite form. He’s recovering well from last season’s injury, when he did not compete from July to December after surgery to fix a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. “I’m physically quite fit at the moment, and the leg was fine,” Els said. “The game wasn’t quite there.”

Els shared seventh at the Ford Championships at Doral and tied for eighth at The Players Championship last month. Els was tied with Mickelson at 2-under par halfway through the Masters last week. That’s when things fell apart, Els going 74-76 on the weekend to fall from contention.

“I’ve got myself in certain positions already, the last couple of weeks, the last month,” Els said. “But I just, for some reason, haven’t sustained it or haven’t gone forward on to the next little stage.”

Harbour Town is as good a place as any for Els to take that step.

Els has had five top 10 finishes in seven appearances. Those have included a couple of disheartening defeats.

Els squandered a five-stroke lead in the final round here in 2000 as Stewart Cink won the first of his two Verizon Heritage crowns. Three years ago, Els was again in front on Sunday when he drove out of bounds on the 16th hole for a double bogey, then closed with two more bogeys to tie for 10th.

Still, Els feels he’ll eventually earn the tartan jacket that goes the Verizon Heritage champion.

“I love this place,” he said. “You’ve got play good, tidy, aggressive golf here.” - Sapa-AP

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