Mickelson has a lot on his mind these days
MEMPHIS, Tenn. – No one knew for sure what was going through Phil Mickelson’s mind.
He had just wasted a solid start to his round by hitting a fairway metal into the water. The U.S. Open, a major that has teased him for 15 years, was approaching. He was playing for the first time since learning his wife, Amy, had breast cancer.
The fans who followed him faithfully under heavy clouds and a constant rain only saw him smile.
The smile rarely leaves him.
Mickelson handles defeat graciously, and he has had plenty of practice. He is renowned for signing autographs, careful not to miss anyone, taking so much time that he can look fans in the eyes and make small talk.
This took place in the first round of the St. Jude Classic, a quiet tournament in Memphis. It is a scene that has played out across the PGA Tour in Palm Springs or Pebble Beach, in Boston or Houston.
Now bring that to New York, among the most sports-crazed cities in the land.
Make this the U.S. Open.
That might be the only way to explain why a player who drips California cool, who has more silver medals than gold, who once was called a “lovable loser,” can be so universally adored in a city that only celebrates winners.
“I don’t know what to say to that,” Mickelson said. “It’s cool. It’s a really neat feeling.”
The cheers from Bethpage Black in 2002 that grew louder at Shinnecock Hills in 2004 and were thunderous at Winged Foot in 2006 figured to be turbocharged when the U.S. Open returned to Bethpage.
And that was before the golf world learned about his wife. Mickelson waited until two weeks before the U.S. Open to decide that he would play. His wife’s cancer appears to have been caught early, and her surgery will be in the first week of July.
“The people will help him,” Stephen Ames said. “They will be nuts. It will be like a 15th club in his bag.”
Mickelson was a sympathetic figure in New York even before he disclosed his wife had breast cancer.
He inspired the Bethpage gallery in 2002 with an improbable bid to stop Tiger Woods, starting the final round five shots behind and closing within two shots until he ran out of holes and birdies.
They were poised for a celebration at Shinnecock Hills two years later until Mickelson took double bogey from the bunker on the 17th hole, and Retief Goosen turned in a putting performance that is tough to top.
And then came Winged Foot, where Lefty lost a one-shot lead on the final hole with a risky shot that led to double bogey.
The losses piled up but the love for him never left.
“He’s a popular guy,” former U.S. Open champion and NBC Sports analyst Johnny Miller said. “He knows how to smile, he knows how to do autographs, he gives his time better than any pro. And he does play an exciting, Arnold Palmer-type of a game. Guys that hit it in the trees all the time are popular with the gallery.”
Miller was among those stunned by the news of Amy’s cancer, and pleased to hear that Mickelson would be at Bethpage when the U.S. Open begins on Thursday.
“There’s a lot of people at the U.S. Open, and there will be a lot of good vibes,” Miller said. “Phil winning would be the biggest story. There’s so much sympathy, and they already love him more than anyone else.”
Mickelson was born and raised in San Diego and was an All-American at Arizona State, where he met his wife, who is from Utah. Even in the early years of their marriage, and especially later when they had three kids, they gravitated to New York.
How did that happen?
“We’ve always enjoyed going there. We’ve always taken our kids there,” Mickelson said. “We have a New York trip every year, when we take the kids to shows. It’s not even golf-related. I just love all that’s going on there. It’s a very sports-minded city, a very cultural city, and a very energetic city.”
The closest he came to winning in New York was the 2005 PGA Championship at Baltusrol across the river in New Jersey.
Might this finally be the year?
Mickelson already shares the U.S. Open record with four runner-up finishes, and most of the attention is on Woods, who is the defending champion and coming off a victory at the Memorial.
Some wonder if his wife’s health is too great of a distraction, or if the month away allowed too much rust to accumulate.
“It will be a big week for him, emotional, I’m sure,” Geoff Ogilvy said. “The crowd was behind him big-time the last time, and this will magnify now because of the love they feel. And the empathy they feel at the moment will be incredible. Everyone loves Amy. Great things sometimes happen in situations like that.”
Even without winning, Mickelson has always thrived at U.S. Opens in New York.
His first one came in 1995 at Shinnecock Hills, when he played the par-5 16th in 6-over-par for the week and finished four shots behind Corey Pavin, in a tie for fourth. That was his worst finish in a U.S. Open in the Empire State.
Goosen was in the group behind Mickelson at Shinnecock in 2004, and even that was daunting.
“It’s hard to block it out,” the South African said. “It becomes a mind game. Playing against Mickelson is tough. It’s like an extra club in his bag.”
Goosen will find out, for he and Ernie Els will be playing with Mickelson the first two rounds. The two South Africans have combined to win five majors, yet they might easily be ignored in the presence of New York golf’s adopted son.
Padraig Harrington can relate to the distraction of family battling cancer. He won his first U.S. tour event in 2005 as his father was dying of the disease. He missed the cut in three majors that year, and skipped the British Open at St. Andrews.
He found his greatest peace inside the ropes.
“You don’t have to explain yourself on the golf course,” Harrington said. “You got to remember, we’re quite proficient at dealing with that little white golf ball, not quite as good about explaining our emotions.”
As for coping with endless cheers that figure to be louder than ever?
It’s a U.S. Open in New York. Mickelson is used to that, and he loves it.