Bethpage crowd already revved up

Tiger Woods signs some autographs during a practice round at the U.S. Open.

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FARMINGDALE, N.Y. – After a few practice swings on an unseasonably cool day at Bethpage Black, Tiger Woods decided to remove his pullover sweater.

“Take it all off, Tiger,” someone shouted from the packed bleachers, as laughter rolled across the driving range.

Only in New York.

Bethpage Black doesn’t lack for intimidating forces, with the famed warning sign near the first tee saying only highly skilled players should dare venture past, a trio of par-4s spanning more than 500 yards apiece and the second-longest layout in U.S. Open history.

The toughest thing to handle at this major, though, could be galleries unlike perhaps any other in golf.

“It’s going to be nuts,” said Rocco Mediate, certain to be a favorite after his runner-up finish to Woods last year. “I’ll fit right in.”

Loud, rabid fans aren’t exactly new to the game; think the 16th hole at the FBR Open in Phoenix, for example, where grandstands line the entire perimeter of the par-3 and the scene is more like a football tailgate bash.

Except at Bethpage, well, it’s going to be like that on just about every hole.

“New Yorkers are very passionate,” said Sergio Garcia, who was on the wrong side of that passion when the U.S. Open first came to Bethpage in 2002, when fans mocked him for waggling his club – some of them showing disdain by counting his repetitions in Spanish – and he answered by making an obscene gesture in one particularly frustrating moment.

In New York, they love a winner, almost as much as they love to mock a loser.

Golf claps won’t be found.

“They can be great, and they can be probably brutal,” said Steve Stricker, who tied for 16th in the 2002 Open at Bethpage. “But it’s atmosphere like no other that we play. ... They will get behind you, you know, if you’re playing well. If you hit a bad shot, you may hear about it too. So it’s a unique atmosphere, and it’s a good one.”

Stricker was asked what advice he’d give to a first-timer at Bethpage this week.

“Ear plugs,” he said.

That 2002 Open was tinged in emotion, taking place less than a year after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that started with two planes flying into the World Trade Center in Manhattan, about an hour west of Bethpage State Park. Thousands of people from the area surrounding the park took trains into New York that morning for work; some of them never came home, their cars staying in the parking lots of Long Island train stations for weeks in some cases, waiting to be claimed.

Woods won that week by three shots, the only player in the field to break par for the tournament. For someone who builds his year – his career, really – around major championships, the Bethpage scene that week remains unforgettable.

“As just overall atmosphere, I’ve never seen anything like it,” Woods said Tuesday. “I don’t think we ever will, given circumstances surrounding the event.”

Some things will remain the same, of course. Boobirds will be swirling about. Jim Furyk remembers them less than fondly.

He still tells the story of walking off the 18th green at Bethpage and hearing about how poorly he played that day from some ticketholders.

“If you’re a Yankee and you’re Derek Jeter and you’re playing bad, it doesn’t matter if you’re Derek Jeter or not,” Furyk said. “They’re still going to let you know.”

Woods wasn’t exactly the people’s choice at Bethpage in 2002.

That unofficial honor went to Phil Mickelson, who’ll surely be greeted with a roar when he steps on the opening tee box Thursday – as he always is whenever he plays in the New York area.

Mickelson’s wife Amy was recently diagnosed with breast cancer, which doctors believe was caught early. She will have surgery next month, and while Mickelson is bracing for support, he’s also gearing up for on-course discussions with New York sports fans, saying Wednesday morning that he brushed up on his Giants, Jets, Mets and Yankees knowledge before arriving at Bethpage.

“I thought that knowing a little bit about those teams would be probably wise on my part,” Mickelson said.

When wooing a New York crowd, every little bit helps.

“They say whatever they feel. And they don’t care who’s listening,” Mediate said. “That’s what I like about it. They just let you have it. They’re with you or they’re against you.”

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