MEMPHIS, Tenn. – The idea was for Phil Mickelson to return to a routine as best as possible in his world now shaken with fear.
It has been three turbulent weeks since he announced his wife, Amy, was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Mickelson has always felt like he was in control, even if his golf at times suggested otherwise. Now he feels helpless.
“I’ve never been this emotional, where if I’m driving alone or what have you, I’ll just start crying,” he said Wednesday at the St. Jude Classic, his eyes tinged with streaks of pink, his voice no longer steady and sure.
“We’re scared, yeah,” he said. “I think a lot of it is the unknown.”
Tests on his 38-year-old wife have provided enough optimism that surgery has been pushed back to the first week of July, allowing Mickelson to return to competition this week, then go to the U.S. Open in New York, where he is beloved under normal circumstances.
His wife faces treatment for at least a year, so they decided to do what they normally would – play golf tournaments, take their three children to camps and activities. They plan a tropical vacation after the U.S. Open and before Amy’s surgery.
Even so, this was not a normal routine for Mickelson in Memphis.
Some 300 fans lined the walkway at the bottom of the stairs leading to the clubhouse where Mickelson had lunch, waiting for autographs or pictures, some wearing pink shirts in support.
Mickelson, however, went around the front of the clubhouse to avoid the crowd, setting up shop at the far end of the range that had been reserved for the amateurs before his pro-am round, far away from his peers. Woody Austin, his partner at the Presidents Cup last time, and defending champion Justin Leonard walked over to welcome him back with a handshake that turned into a hug.
He does not know what to expect from his game. Mickelson said he would hit balls for an hour while his wife was resting, and he feels he is not far off from earlier this year, when he won at Riviera and Doral.
“But certainly, I haven’t played in a while,” he said. “I had an emotional month, and I don’t know where I will be on the golf course as far as being able to focus. I don’t know that yet.”
If nothing else, Mickelson said he looked forward to being inside the ropes, allowing him to get his mind off cancer.
But there was no escaping it Wednesday.
He started on No. 10, hitting driver down the hill into the water, hitting the next one in a bunker. Then came the par-3 11th over water, and a tournament tradition that hit home like never before.
Patients at the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital caddie for the professional on this hole. Mickelson met Michael Anderson, 27, who is coming off his fourth surgery for a brain tumor. A half-dozen children suddenly surrounded him, most of them losing their hair.
Lefty knelt to speak to them, giving each a golf ball and a glove until he had to send his caddie, Jim Mackay, back to the bag for more.
“I can’t shake hands,” one girl said to Mickelson, steadying herself with a crutch.
“Well, you have a very strong hug,” Mickelson said after leaning in to embrace her.
Anderson had enough strength to lug Mickelson’s bag to the green – “It’s heavier than mine,” he said with a smile – but Mickelson wouldn’t discharge him of his duties until he read the birdie putt. He just missed.
They talked briefly about his outlook, and Anderson inquired about Amy.
“We think they caught it early,” Mickelson said. “The treatment is going to be tough. But let’s whip this.”
Mickelson spent seven hours Tuesday practicing at Bethpage Black, where he was runner-up to Tiger Woods in 2002. He has never finished worse than fourth in a U.S. Open held in New York.
“I’m not just playing to play,” Mickelson said. “I think Bethpage is a golf course that suits my game. I love playing that course, I love playing in the New York area. I’m playing here because I believe I can win next week. Again, there’s a lot of question marks that I have. But that’s the goal.”
Mickelson’s parents are taking his children camping this week, as Amy stays at home with her best friends. He said it was unlikely she would go to Bethpage – Amy rarely misses a major – because of the raw emotions that await of seeing so many friends.
“When you see people, and they’re crying and so forth, it’s just not easy to go through that,” he said.
It’s what Mickelson avoided as best he could before teeing off in the pro-am.
Stephen Ames, among the few who can appreciate what Mickelson is going through, was surprised to see him. Ames’ wife, Jodi, had breast cancer at age 38 during the summer of 2005. He missed the cut at the British Open and went through the motions at the PGA Championship, not clearing his mind until she was headed toward recovery.
“But he’s a different fish,” Ames said. “To be that good, to be where he is in the world, you’ve got to be mentally tough. I feel badly for him. This is not something nice to go through.”
The support continues to amaze Mickelson. He began his press conference by talking about Saturday at the Colonial, the famous “Pink Out” when players, wives, fans and TV personalities wore pink in honor of his wife.
“I don’t know how to express the emotions that we felt because of that,” Mickelson said. “It was just a very special thing for us.”
He does not know how much he will play the rest of the year. Everything hinges on the surgery, when they find out the scope of the cancer and the treatment required.
But he wants to make the most of the time he is back on the job.
“I don’t think it’s going to affect how I play,” Mickelson said. “I’m going to still play aggressively. There’s not really a carry-over effect there. It’s just that off the course, I’ve never felt something like this.”