Phil Mickelson Feels the Love From U.S. Open Gallery at Bethpage

West Coast boy Phil Mickelson has an unusual affinity with normally tough New York fans, and it showed during his practice round for the U.S. Open yesterday at Bethpage Black.
West Coast boy Phil Mickelson has an unusual affinity with normally tough New York fans, and it showed during his practice round for the U.S. Open yesterday at Bethpage Black. (By Charles Krupa -- Associated Press)
By Sally Jenkins
Thursday, June 18, 2009

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. It's like Phil Mickelson gives off some sort of high-pitched dog whistle, inaudible to others, that calls New Yorkers to him. As Mickelson treads the fairways with that cumbersome gait, his rowdies follow loyally behind, calling out "Go, Lefty!" and eating cheeseburgers, even though it's only 10 a.m. Mickelson nods and grins and points at them as if he has picked out their individual voices, which only makes the crowds swell in size and noisy affection.

What is this thing between them? There's no apparent reason for it -- Mickelson was born in San Diego and educated in Arizona, and he's all western tan and soft edges. Usually New York crowds pounce on any hint of softness or frailty. The last time the U.S. Open was held at Bethpage, in 2002, they jeered at Colin Montgomerie for being fat, and at Sergio GarcĂ­a for being neurotic. But Mickelson? They sang "Happy Birthday" to him.

You'd think they would find any number of excuses to jump on him, from that squashy build, to the feathery Cali hair curling from under his cap, to that earnest, syrupy grin. Instead, Mickelson has a deep affinity with New York fans that will give him one of the great home-field advantages when he tees off in the U.S. Open at Bethpage Black, the taxpayer-built course that Manhattanites and Massapequeans treat like a personal possession. Mickelson has been their Man of the People ever since he finished runner-up to Tiger Woods in the '02 Open here. Their devotion to him will be all the more intense because his wife is ill, and this could be his only appearance in a major championship this summer.

Mickelson announced Wednesday that he'll skip most of July, including the British Open, to be with his wife, Amy, while she fights breast cancer. He admitted frankly he has no idea how he will play under the circumstances, with his family back home readying for her surgery, scheduled for July 1.

"I'm not sure. I'm not sure," he said. "I'm going to just do the best that I can. I feel like my game is ready, but you just never know. I feel like emotionally I'm better. But you just never know. So we'll play it by ear, day to day."

Afterward, Mickelson went out to start his practice round on the 10th tee, the most distant spot on the 7,426-yard, par-70 course, where he perhaps expected it would be quiet. Instead he found thousands waiting for him. They packed the bleachers and staggered up and down the steep, oak-shrouded hills with him, shouting at him from behind the ropes, "Bring it on, Phil!" and "Take it home, Phil!" There were banker types in pastel shirts and khaki shorts and topsiders, regular guys in baseball T-shirts and ladies in golf sweaters.

On the 13th hole, he walked to the wrong tee -- the women's tee. Now, if ever there was a moment for a New York crowd to make fun of him, here it was. Mickelson realized his mistake and shrugged comically.

"Just hit it righty from there," someone yelled.

The crowd laughed.

"Want to use my clubs?" someone else yelled.

Mickelson nodded and smiled, and gave them the thumbs-up.

"See that?" a lady in a cardigan said. "See how he makes eye contact?"

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