2006: Phil Mickelson - His kind of town

New York’s affinity for Phil Mickelson has to do with golf skill, interactive love and underdog nature. Pour those ingredients into the pot, boil it in some Sunday heat, stir three times and you get an adopted-son dynamic the lefthander uses as something of a 15th club.

We’ve seen it, heard it and felt it often lately, of course, because somehow more than half of the non-Georgia or non-British major championships post 9/11 (counting this month) have been a drive from Donald Trump’s hair salon. The bond formed in the boisterous, blue-collar cauldron of Bethpage Black at the 2002 U.S. Open grew two years later at nearby Shinnecock Hills during another Open runner-up showing and kept soaring last August throughout Lefty’s PGA Championship victory at Baltusrol.

New York loves battles, and Mickelson has provided them every time.

More such synergy will spew forth at Winged Foot. And this could be the most significant love-a-thon yet, as Mickelson enters the U.S. Open seeking the third leg of a Lefty Slam. At the height of his late-developing career in tournaments that matter most, Mickelson has won the last two majors and three of the past nine.

Along the way the lumbering Left Coaster has won over New Yorkers in a way normally only the Yankees and Mets do. Big Cheese in the Big Apple. Mickelson couldn’t have picked a better time to have those distinctive, testosterone-spiked yells on his side as he is trying to become only the fourth player in the game’s history to win three consecutive majors. He would join Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods.

This time Mickelson is something of a favorite, spiritually and numerically, because he is winning Grand Slam bottle caps at faster clip these days than even Woods – who is coming off a nine-week layoff following the death of his father Earl.

But the city’s love affair with Mickelson began because he was an underdog. A confluence of circumstances came together at Bethpage, the daily-fee course where beer-drinking, lunch-pail types serenaded him with “Happy Birthday,” greeted him by doing the wave in the grandstands and lived and died on his every putt.

Woods was winning every major back then. The Open at Bethpage was his seventh victory in the 11 previous majors. Another challenger, Sergio Garcia, so annoyed some fans with his excessive waggling over the ball, they hooted at him and counted the regrips in Spanish. Mickelson, meanwhile, was painfully winless in majors in a decade as a professional.

So they jumped on the big, loping southpaw. Think pastrami on rye.

“He was the underdog, and it’s an underdog town,” said Dave Anderson, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The New York Times. “They relate to the underdog. There are 15 million people in the area and most of those people are underdogs. You can’t have 15 million rich people.”

It helped, of course, that the People’s Choice had some game. Mickelson made a run at the then-seemingly invincible Woods by making 10 birdies on his last 30 holes at highly difficult Bethpage. In case you’re new to this, 10 birdies in the last 30 holes of a U.S. Open are pretty much unheard of. Afterward, Mickelson would get a much louder applause at the 18th-green ceremony than the winner.

If Woods is the modern Nicklaus, then Mickelson is today’s Arnold Palmer. One is more known for trophies, the other for fans. Woods makes people awestruck, Mickelson gives them the feeling he cares. Fans respect Woods. They love Mickelson.

Mickelson, though, isn’t the first athlete from elsewhere New York has adopted. Even though Stan Musial routinely killed the Dodgers, Brooklyn people adopted the St. Louis star. In fact, they nicknamed him The Man, Anderson said. “There’s that Man again!”

New York also embraced tennis great Jimmy Connors. People there liked his fiesty, scrappy way. He was the kind of guy you might meet on the subway. And, again, he often was an underdog – to Bjorn Borg, to John McEnroe, to Ivan Lendl.

Another interesting element is that Mickelson apparently is more popular outside the ropes than inside. He made GQ magazine’s list of Ten Most Hated Athletes this year. Some peers and reporters have wondered if he’s always genuine and sincere, if there isn’t an Eddie Haskell element about him. Vijay Singh has posed the question more than once.

Yet there’s little question he connects with galleries. He might lead the PGA Tour in tipping and autograph signing. He smiles and waves back at spectators. He bumps knuckles with them. He gives the impression he is to an open book what Woods is to a guarded treasure chest. New York apparently felt the reciprocal love, often in the form of Mickelson’s sheepish smile or “I can’t believe I pulled that shot off” look.

In an interactive age, Mickelson is the interactive golfer. Other famous players can learn from that. More need to come out of their shells, their bubbles. Woods could stop and sign more autographs. Singh could reach out to the public more. David Duval could take off the sunglasses and make eye contact with paying customers. Retief Goosen could introduce himself.

Point is, Americans are about chat rooms, blogging, weighing in and “American Idol” voting. More than ever they want to be involved. They want more than just good golf shots. They want love coming back. They appreciate a player giving his time, especially when that player wins $1 million over four days.

Warm is in, cold is out. One can show personality and focus at the same time.

Say what you will about Mickelson, he gets all that. And that’s important on a Tour that this spring has gotten more boring by the week. Mickelson gets it because he watched the most popular golfer ever, Palmer, sign autographs for an hour in extreme heat at the 1994 U.S. Open at Oakmont and decided he wanted to be like that.

It follows that Mickelson signed autographs for 15 minutes in the rain after finishing at the Wachovia Championship. It follows that he signed 172 autographs after finishing second to Goosen at the 2004 Open. (Yes, the lefthander’s PR aide counted. If I’m not mistaken, Bundini Brown had that same job for Muhammad Ali.)

“Phil has reached out and touched these people,” said Mark Cannizzaro, longtime New York Post golf writer. “They don’t like aloofness. He signs autographs until his arm falls off and makes eye contact. When people yell at Phil, he smiles and nods.

“He makes them feel a part of it.”

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