Toronto, Canada – HONOLULU (Reuters) - Phil Mickelson, a four-times winner worldwide last year, can now be bracketed alongside top-ranked Tiger Woods in all departments of the game, according to Ernie Els.
Mickelson finished his 2009 campaign in barn-storming fashion, clinching the PGA Tour's season-ending Tour Championship in September and the WGC-HSBC Champions in China in November.
In each of those high-profile tournaments, left-hander Mickelson overshadowed his more illustrious American rival Woods, and South African Els took careful notice.
"Phil is probably the man to beat now," former world number one Els told reporters at this week's Sony Open on the Hawaiian island of Oahu.
"Even if you ask Tiger, I think Phil has got right to his level throughout his game. There is a new guy we got to chase.
"The way Phil played at the end of last year ... he played with Tiger in Shanghai and won the tournament there on the final hole. The Tour Championship he won coming from behind."
Gifted shot-maker Mickelson, for much of his career the perennial world number two, has never reached the top of the rankings. Going into this week, he trailed Woods by 6.18 points in the global pecking order.
"With Tiger not in the scene, it becomes a free-for-fall again. You try to position yourself and you try to be the man. It's a different landscape with Tiger not here."
Woods announced last month he was taking an indefinite break from the game in the wake of embarrassing revelations about his personal life.
The 14-times major winner, who has been world number one for a total of 582 weeks in his career, has given no timetable for his likely return to competition.
He was plunged into a media storm after suffering minor injuries in a bizarre early morning car crash outside his Florida home on November 27 and he has been in hiding since admitting he had cheated on his wife.
"He is our No. 1 player in the world, he is the brand that fuels the Tour," Els said of Woods' self-imposed absence from the game.
Asked whether he felt Woods would be able to maintain his on-course focus once he returns to competition, Els replied: "I think he will have the blinkers on and do his thing.
"I don't know. It's just a situation that's tough to talk about. I've known him most of my life. We'll see when that happens."
Els goes into Sunday's final round of the Sony Open at Waialae Country Club seven shots behind leaders Robert Allenby of Australia and American Ryan Palmer after carding a three-under-par 67 on Saturday.
(Writing by Mark Lamport-Stokes in Los Angeles; Editing by Peter Rutherford)