Things happen when Phil Mickelson is on a golf course. It's noisy. Dust rises from the trampled ground. Human throngs form along the gallery ropes, and they whistle, slap him on the back, and speak to him as if they are on familiar terms. Phil. Philly. Attaboy. People offer him food. Sometimes, they sing to him.
It's tempting to pull for Mickelson to win the PGA Championship at Baltusrol, if only because it would so please the masses here. It was 11:40 a.m. Friday and Mickelson was on his way to shooting a 65 for the second-round lead, but he was getting the kind of ovations another player might get on the 18th hole on a Sunday -- if he won.
"Come on, Philly!"
One small boy standing at the ropes, hollered:
"Hey! Wanna a bite of my hot dog?"
What is it about Mickelson, the toothsome, bland 34-year-old from San Diego, that makes him so beloved by the crowds, and especially by raucous multitudes in the northeast, with whom he would seem to have nothing in common? It started at the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage, when galleries of New Yorkers loudly adopted him as he finished second to Tiger Woods. They came out in swarms for him again last year in the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, where he was again a runner-up. Mickelson himself professes to be baffled.
"I've never analyzed it," he says. "I just know that it feels great, and I love playing here. It's an amazing feeling on the golf course from a player's point of view to be able to feel that type of support. It's awesome."
One answer is that Mickelson's rounds are so eventful. It may be that spectators, and particularly metropolitan spectators, see a little of themselves in "Phil." He fights his weight. He fights his swing. He fights his own bad decisions and doesn't always do the smart thing. Who of us does? Sometimes he's too aggressive. He loses more than he wins. Who of us doesn't?
On Friday, Mickelson made just seven pars in 18 holes. Which meant something happened on every other hole -- something either good or bad, but never indifferent. He had an eagle, seven birdies, two bogeys and a double bogey. Teeing off on the 10th, he shot 31 on the front side, including an eagle on the 550-yard 18th. Only to double-bogey the very next hole.
"Part of it is his go-for-broke style," said his coach, Rick Smith, standing outside the ropes shortly after Mickelson made his double. "People think, 'That's me.' "
In the U.S. Open at Bethpage, he made 10 birdies in the space of 30 holes to chase Woods. It was his birthday, so the crowd sang to him. During a second-round stretch in the U.S. Open at Pinehurst earlier this summer, he made six bogeys in seven holes, to knock himself right off the leader board. And still they clapped for him.
Mickelson, interestingly enough, is not as popular in the locker room as he is outside of it. He is, granted, Pollyannaish. The word "awesome" is over-employed in his vocabulary, and every golf course can't possibly be the greatest he ever played. Cynics might find him to be a phony, a little too smiley, and there are whispers that his nickname this week in the clubhouse is The Candidate, because his glad-handing resembles someone running for office.
But anyone who wonders at Mickelson's popularity ought to stroll out to the course to observe the swelling crowds, pulling for him, and more importantly, note how Mickelson treats them in kind. Few players are as responsive to their audience. In fact, almost none are. Plenty of them are nice guys, but far too many of them are aloof, in the name of maintaining "focus."
The relationship between golfer and spectator is in constant danger of tilting toward elitism. The players are driven by courtesy car to gated communities, where they dress and dine in clubhouses where the public is not permitted. They play behind ropes. Meantime, the paying customers park miles away and ride packed shuttles so they can have the pleasure of waiting in line at concessions, and standing behind the ropes, watching small, remote figures several hundred yards away, who may or may not tip a visor toward them.
Mickelson is not aloof, or cool. He is sweaty, direct and personal. He doesn't just lift a hand in some rote response, he looks right at the people in his audience, smiles at them and even speaks directly to them on occasion. He doesn't treat them as an annoyance, or an inconvenience, or an obstacle. He doesn't frown when they make noise, or glare at them when they move. "I think a lot of it is his demeanor," Smith says.
In Thursday's opening round, he hit a tree off the sixth tee. He decided the best play was to make his way up the adjacent 17th fairway, outside the ropes and through the crowd. He hit a marvelous flop wedge to the sixth green to give himself a chance for par, and the throng around him exploded. Mickelson strode directly through the middle of them, slapping and shaking hands.
Maybe Mickelson's galleries like him so much because they sense that he likes them back. At Shinnecock last year, Mickelson had just finished a round when a tournament official tried to hustle him away, through a roped-off area, while multitudes lined up begging for autographs. Mickelson balked.
"I'm not going to walk past all those people without stopping," he said to the official, testily. "I'm not going to just walk by and ignore them." Mickelson then spent several minutes signing autographs and chatting.
No wonder they love Mickelson at Baltusrol. His gallery is boisterous and large and constantly in motion. The fans swill from cups, climb trees, crane their necks and talk in loud voices. As Mickelson rears back and takes a huge cut, launching the ball into a three-tiered flight path, the crowd explodes again. Mickelson grins, and nods, and waves.