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Last Updated: Friday, 15 July, 2005, 17:20 GMT 18:20 UK
Els and Mickelson chasing Woods
By Matt Slater
BBC Sport at St Andrews

Jack Nicklaus was not the only great player to wake up on Friday knowing the golfing gods would be weighing his achievements today.

Ernie Els

Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson - great golfers but not quite golf greats - started their second rounds knowing their seasons, and very possibly their careers, were in the balance.

Their patchy form this year had carried into Thursday's first round, while their great rivals Vijay Singh and Tiger Woods, in particular, had marched confidently on.

Little more than three months after coming together at the Masters, golf's Fab Four was in danger of splintering into a number of solo projects of varying success.

This state of affairs is especially galling for Els.

Nobody likes to suggest a lack of "bottle" in a sportsman or woman, particularly one as talented and likeable as the 35-year-old South African, but there are those in this press tent that have done just that.

They might not have written it yet, but they have certainly thought it and discussed it.

The case stacks up like this. Amateur prodigy takes pro golf by storm, wins second major aged 27, has world at his feet.

Then another prodigy arrives, takes pro golf by storm, wins second major at 23, has world at his feet and duly stamps his authority all over the sport.

But just when it is starting to get predictable, the second prodigy begins to show cracks and the forgotten prodigy raises his game.

Els' victory at Muirfield in 2002 brought him his first major for five years, halted another Woods assault on the Grand Slam and heralded a 10-major drought for the American superstar.

Els went on to claim seven top-10 finishes in the next nine majors. He would nearly, but not quite, win at least two of those.

A suddenly fallible Woods could only watch as his dominance diminished and his huge lead in the rankings evaporated.

Such was Els' consistency in the big events, it did not seem to matter that it was Singh, coming up fast on the rails, who actually usurped Tiger.

For Els, who first tasted the top spot at 14 when he beat Mickelson on the way to winning the Junior World Golf Championship, it seemed a case of when, not if, he would reclaim his crown.

Almost all of the previous eight paragraphs could be applied to Mickelson too. Perhaps the only difference being his much-discussed failure to win a major until the 2004 Masters.

Phil Mickelson

That victory was supposed to lift the Californian to a Tiger/Jack-like level. And his results in the remaining majors of 2004 suggested that was a probability, not a possibility.

If Els had been the most consistent player in 2003, Mickelson shaded him in 2004.

Yet the end product for their consistent excellence was one major each.

And the displays in the 2005 majors from this half of the Fab Four have not suggested they will add to that haul any time soon.

Mickelson's 10th at the Masters is as good as it gets for the pair, while Singh has two top-sixes and Woods a win and a second.

Tiger is emphatically back, and it is only thanks to Michael Campbell's courage and skill at Pinehurst that he isn't two thirds of the way to a historic Grand Slam.

So that was the backdrop for the second rounds of Els and Mickelson. Their response was identical.

Having shot sloppy 74s on Thursday, the pair carded title chance-saving rounds of 67 on Friday.

Mickelson continued to struggle with his putter - he has used it a shocking 66 times - but he hit more fairways and missed only one green in regulation.

Likewise, Els' score could have been a couple better. His overall play was sharper than on Thursday, and his putting was adequate.

But he will be annoyed about missing a short putt at the 17th for a richly-deserved birdie at the Old Course's hardest hole.

And Ernie fans will be concerned to hear a hint of the 2000-01 edition Els - a time when he seemed overawed by Tiger - in his post-round comments.

Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods is the man Els and Mickelson are hoping to match

When asked about his current position, the world number three said: "Given the best player in the world's excellent start, it's not a great way to begin."

A few months ago Els would never have acknowledged Tiger's superiority.

But a 10th major title for Woods on Sunday would make the American's case, if not his suitcase, an open-and-shut affair.

Els and Mickelson had to respond on Friday and they should be applauded for doing so, but theirs is a moving target.

Having missed a sitting duck these last two years, it is difficult to see them hitting a charging Tiger this week.

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