There is a Sunday scenario for The Sprint International that would make golf fans howl with delight - and overlook the absence of Nick Price.

How about Phil Mickelson, the bright young hope of American golf, going head-to-head with golf's other rising star, South African Ernie Els?The defending champion and U.S. Open champion, matching birdie for birdie in the tournament's unique scoring format, would be fascinating. It also might be a preview of a rivalry to be played out many times in the years to come.

Both are 24. Both are 6-feet-3. Both are talented.

"I've got a natural golf swing," Els acknowledged last week at the PGA Championship, "and I guess I've got a natural ability for the game." The observation fits Mickelson nicely as well.

Mickelson won the U.S. Amateur when he was 20. Els won the South African Amateur at 16.

Since the tournament's inception in 1986, officials of The International have gone out of their way to bring in a strong foreign contingent. Els first played here in 1991, his second PGA Tour event.

Els also played here in 1992 and 1993. He has made it through the third round all three visits but hasn't been a threat to make the Sunday shootout.

"It's a great tournament," Els said. "It's one of my favorite golf courses in the world. Even Denver, with the altitude, it's almost like Johannesburg; the ball flies a little longer. It's just one of my favorite tournaments."

Els likes the modified Stableford scoring system, which plays to his game.

"You know what you've got to do, you've got to make birdies," Els said. "If you blow up, what the h---."

Els, who won the U.S. Open in an 18-hole playoff to capture his first major, got on the leader board at the PGA Championship with a first-round 68. He was six shots behind Price going into the final round but stumbled home with a 75.

He believed he played better than he scored in the first three rounds and lost his rhythm Sunday after missing a 2-foot par putt on the first hole. "My mind just left me," Els said.

Mickelson, who ran away with The International last year, finished third at the PGA, seven shots behind Price.

"This was the first week going into a major that I really felt my game was at a level to win," Mickelson said.

"I played well the last PGA (finishing sixth in 1993) and had a good tournament at Castle Pines," Mickelson said, "so I'm looking forward to it."

Mickelson's progress this year was hampered by a skiing accident. It has only been the last few weeks that he's been able to play to the level that he was at before the accident. He has taken it in stride. He joked about it after the PGA, stating that maybe the way to beat Price would be to get Price to go skiing.

Els has spent most of his time on the European Tour the past three years, but he plans to become a regular on the PGA Tour next year. He expects to buy a house in Florida.

Mickelson has won twice since joining the Tour in 1992. He won another Tour event, the Northern Telecom Open, in 1991 when he was a student at Arizona State.

"We've played quite a bit together," Els said of Mickelson ... When I start playing over here next year we'll see a lot of each other. And in the years to come."

Count on that. And with a little luck, they'll spend 18 holes together Sunday.