New York loves Phil Mickelson for one thing he hasn't accomplished in two decades

phil mickelson John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

New York loves Phil Mickelson for one thing he hasn't accomplished in two decades

PGA Championship

New York loves Phil Mickelson for one thing he hasn't accomplished in two decades

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FARMINGDALE, N.Y. – For almost a quarter century, New York has rewarded Phil Mickelson much as the guillotine did French nobility. He has been cheered by throngs, worshipped even, only to lose it all at the end. He played his first major championship in New York in 1995, and while the cheering and worship hasn’t dimmed with the passage of time, Mickelson’s end just comes a little earlier than it used to.

In Saturday’s third round of the PGA Championship at Bethpage Black, he made three birdies but three times as many bogeys for 76, matching his highest-ever score at a course where he has twice been runner-up in U.S. Opens. By the time Mickelson signed his card, he trailed Brooks Koepka by 20 shots.

His day was at least an improvement on the last Saturday he contested a major in New York, when his frustration boiled over and he hit a moving ball at last summer’s U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, 50-odd miles east of Bethpage. He brazened his way through the brouhaha but later apologized. It was the kind of rules infraction that causes grievous offense on Long Island’s tony East End but is more apt to be met with raucous laughter at Bethpage. This is, after all, the ‘People’s Country Club’ and he is the people’s champion.

“New York loves you, Phil!”

“Attaboy Lefty!”

“Way to go, Phil! You cost me $20 but I still love you.”

Those were among the quips by the 18th green. Mickelson’s reception is never dependent on the leaderboard. T’was always thus, even when he first came to the attention of New York’s rabid fans more than two decades ago.

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“They’ve always been great. I’ve always enjoyed playing here,” Mickelson said. “It’s a special environment. The people here are unique and they’ve really given me some great memories and moments over the years.”

Most of those moments came in U.S. Opens, and most were painful, in fairness. The two second places in Opens at Bethpage, the brace of near misses at Shinnecock Hills, the agonizing collapse at Winged Foot. The lone bright spot was his PGA Championship victory in 2005, but that came in New Jersey, so it may as well have been in New Mexico as far as New Yorkers were concerned.

Mickelson is a Hall of Famer with 44 PGA Tour wins, five major titles and annual earnings estimated at over $40 million, but the fans here adore him for what he doesn’t have. New Yorkers like winners — the Yankees, say — but they love losers, the heroic coming-up-short that is a fundamental part of fandom’s self-flagellation. Often with the Mets, usually with the Jets, always with the Knicks. Therein lies the fondness for Phil, who logged four of his record six second-place finishes in the National Open in New York.

I asked Mickelson after his round if he thinks the affection in which fans hold him would be as passionate had he won some of those Opens. “I don’t know. I don’t know,” he said with a wan smile. “But it’s been really fun to play in front of this crowd.”

He still has one round to complete at Bethpage Black, but Mickelson admitted that his mind is already drifting from the East Coast to the West and next month’s U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, where he won the regular PGA Tour stop earlier this season. He will turn 49 on the final day of that Open. An improbable victory would make him the oldest man ever to win a major.

“There’s not much I could do right now that would do anything to redefine my career, but there’s one thing I could do and that would be to win a U.S. Open,” he admitted on Saturday. “I do think about what I have to do to win a U.S. Open. And it’s getting increasingly difficult.”

If he comes up short next month, he’ll have at least one more crack at it in New York — next year’s Open at Winged Foot. Perhaps even the one seven years hence at Shinnecock Hills, by which point he’d be too slow to catch a moving ball to hit it. It’s conceivable that he might arrive for either of those Opens having completed the career grand slam. Which would be nice for Phil, but it won’t change a thing for the fans in New York who grew to love him in the losses.

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