Friday, June 19, 2009
FARMINGDALE, N.Y. – If Phil Mickelson should somehow pull off the fairy tale and win the U.S. Open for a wife back home battling breast cancer, he’d probably be greeted at the last green by a dozen New York book publishers and maybe as many movie producers. Put it this way: He’d be asked to sign more than his scorecard.
Should that happen, no one in that scene would be able to hear themselves think much less talk. To say New York sports fans love Mickelson is like saying middle-aged women who wear out the self-help section at Borders adore Oprah. The voices here just lean more toward husky.
New York City types, of course, are wired differently. There is no better showcase for their loud candor than Yankee Stadium when the Red Sox come to town. But a Mickelson round at Bethpage Black, particularly with his bride ailing, oils up the vocal cords as well.
“Got your back, Philly,” a baritone voice screamed Friday above the din behind the 15th green.
They had his back, front and both sides. Seldom has a sportsman, especially one not playing in an enclosed structure, been treated to such a noisy lovefest as Mickelson was in the rain-delayed first round of the National Open.
It dawned on this particular lay psychologist while walking through the roars at blue-collar Bethpage that perhaps many of these rabid fans were not allowed to speak at the dinner table as children because, connecting the dots, they clearly have a hungry need to be heard now.
Most of the messages were brief and ended with the same word and punctuation. “Let’s go, Phil!” “Come on, Phil!” “We love you, Phil!” “Take ’em down, Phil!” “Have some fun out there, Phil!”
“I certainly felt it,” Mickelson said at day’s end. “It was very cool. It was hard to miss it. It’s not like they were whispering.”
Mickelson played with a pair of two-time U.S. Open winners, Ernie Els and Retief Goosen. Never has the embodiment of four Open trophies been so invisible in front of 40,000 people. Last time a logoed touring pro was so ghost-like on the big stage, Robert Karlsson allegedly was tagging along with Tiger Woods on a June 2008 Saturday at Torrey Pines.
Els was particularly ignored. Yes, he heard a “Big E” or two, and a creative type near the 14th tee yelled, “He can dunk; he can definitely dunk.” But Goosen got more attention because vocal types wanting to be seen and easily heard find it hard to refrain from screaming, “Gooooooose!”
Mickelson gave them plenty to cheer about. He opened with a 1-under-par 69, tied for seventh after the first round. But while the masses lifted his spirits, they couldn’t help will several of his short putts into the hole.
He missed three 4-foot putts and one from 8 feet on his last six holes, turning a 65 or 66 into a 69. That left one lefthander at the top of the board, 64-shooter Mike Weir, instead of two.
Before power-lipping one of those shorties, at the sixth, Mickelson consulted his yardage book, which has notes about break tendencies. He has been doing that odd ritual for a while now, influenced by his short-game guru, scientist Dave Pelz.
Far be it for me to tell Mickelson how to operate on the greens, but when he missed the little one after checking the pamphlet, one couldn’t help but think he had perhaps too much information cluttering his head. Should that tactic ever catch on, however, it could ruin golf or, at the least, give personal-injury lawyers plenty of business on Saturday mornings.
Mickelson wore two pink ribbons on his cap, a symbol of cancer awareness, and often a smile on his face because of all the clapping, waving, whistling, yelling and loving. And he walked off again feeling like a one-man New York franchise.
“I love playing here,” he said after the round. “The people have been so nice to me and my family. They’ve treated us so good.”
They treat him as one of their own because he reaches out and reacts to them. He smiles at them. He acknowledges them. He signs autograph after autograph for them. He high-fives and fist-bumps them, as he did while walking to the scoring trailer.
The outpouring as he walked from tee to green at the short 14th was particularly emotional and frenzied. Another Rolling Stones concert broke out when he holed a 25-foot birdie putt at the par-3 17th.
And then came the laughter by the sixth tee. After hitting a drive, Lefty ducked into a portable toilet. When he emerged, he had a barn-door moment. That’s right, he didn’t remember to zip up until after he took several steps with all eyes on him. Laughter filled the air and Mickelson took his sheepish grin down the fairway.
In his gallery at that point was none other than former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. He and fashionable wife Judith walked inside the ropes, sometimes to chants of “Rudy! Rudy!” Giuliani wore a cap that read “NYSP” in block letters with “Troopers” smaller underneath. It was unknown how he attained inside-the-ropes privilege – political connections, just a wild guess – but it was clear he’s tight with the State Police.
Speaking of the cops, their presence didn’t escape the attention of the masses, either. When an officer blocked spectator view on the fourth, he knelt only after hearing this: “Hey, PD, heads up!”
But that wasn’t even close to the most interesting thing heard on No. 4 from the crowd without a mute button. After Goosen hit an approach shot, one man in the gallery spouted off, “South Africans are (sissies). Alligators, tigers, elephants, what the hell!”
Doesn’t make sense, perhaps on any level. But sometimes cheap entertainment doesn’t have to.
Same could have been said of the curious leaderboard close to 8 p.m. Friday. Woods was nowhere to be found after an opening 74, but the big board did feature the unlikely likes of Peter Hanson, Ricky Barnes, Drew Weaver, Azuno Yano and Nick Taylor.
There’s only one way to sensibly explain that. It was just the early part of the second round. That’s when pretenders tend to lurk, long before potential fairy tales unfold.
Speaking of which, there was another name up there when darkness fell. He was 1 under through 29 holes, tied for 11th, five shots off the lead.
You not only could see that, but you could feel it and hear it. When Phil Mickelson is involved around here, all the senses are in play.