Open arms for Mickelson in New York

Thursday, June 18, 2009
Clinton Jensen lines up his shot on the driving range during his practice session for the U.S. Open Golf Championship at Bethpage State Park's Black Course in Farmingdale, N.Y., Tuesday, June 16, 2009. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Phil Mickelson might be the only player capable of following up Tiger Woods' dramatic victory in the 2008 U.S. Open.

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. -- The U.S. Open might have one tough act to follow.

Tiger Woods was pure theater at Torrey Pines last year, playing on a left leg so badly injured that the U.S. Open turned out to be his last event of the year. He made two eagles on the final six holes in prime time Saturday to take the lead, forced a playoff with a 12-foot birdie putt on the final hole Sunday, then battled Rocco Mediate over 19 holes to capture his 14th career major.

"I'm not sure we can duplicate that drama," USGA president Jim Vernon said Wednesday.

Try telling that to thousands of fans who trudged through the soggy turf of Bethpage Black for five hours on the final day of practice, all because it was their first glimpse of Phil Mickelson.

Spectators arrive at the Bethpage State Park's Black Course to watch practice rounds for the U.S. Open Golf Championship in Farmingdale, N.Y., Tuesday, June 16, 2009. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

The New York gallery has always loved Lefty, even as he broke their hearts with runner-up finishes in the U.S. Open at Bethpage in 2002, Shinnecock Hills in 2004 and Winged Foot in 2006 with that double bogey on the final hole.

The support now is louder and more tangible than ever.

Mickelson wasn't even sure he could return to Bethpage Black upon learning last month that his wife, Amy, had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Only after getting some optimistic news that the cancer might have been caught early did Mickelson feel comfortable leaving California in search of a major that has caused him so much grief.

How much he plays the rest of the year -- Mickelson said the British Open was "unlikely" -- depends on what doctors find when his wife has surgery two weeks after the U.S. Open.

"I'm putting everything I have into this week, because I don't anticipate being able to play for a little while," Mickelson said. "And the fact that my normal support system -- Amy and the kids and so forth -- aren't going to make the trip this week, I'm kind of hoping to feel that support to help me through the week."

Phil Mickelson signs autographs Wednesday following his practice round for the U.S. Open at Bethpage State Park's Black Course in Farmingdale, N.Y. Mickelson still is searching for his first U.S. Open title. (CHARLES KRUPA ~ Associated Press)

That should be easier to find than a cab in Time Square.

Mickelson started his practice round on the 10th tee, the farthest corner of Bethpage Black, yet they were waiting for him. He wore a pink ribbon sewn into his white cap, and some of the fans also wore pink. It was the largest crowd of the week when he made the turn, every grandstand full, every step accompanied by applause.

"He already is so popular in New York," swing coach Butch Harmon said. "And now with everything going on with Amy, they have even more love for him. He talks to them. He smiles at them. He takes time for them."

This was for a practice round Wednesday, typically a quiet day on the eve of the U.S. Open. Imagine the energy if Lefty works his way into contention Sunday, with his wife at home facing such uncertainty.

"She has left me a number of little notes, texts, cards, hints, that she would like to have a silver trophy in her hospital room," Mickelson said. "So I'm going to try to accommodate that."

So much motivation, yet so many obstacles.

The biggest might be the Black Course at Bethpage, already a beast with five par 4s longer than 500 yards. It is playing even longer because of rain that has soaked Long Island for the last month, with a nasty forecast of showers most of the week.

"From tee to green, this golf course is all you want," Woods said.

The other obstacle is Woods himself.

Not only is he the defending champion at the U.S. Open, he is the defending champion at Bethpage, the only player to finish under par in 2002 when he held off a Sunday rally from Mickelson.

With two victories in seven starts since returning from knee surgery, Woods appears to be hitting his stride. He is coming off a victory two weeks ago in the Memorial.

Mickelson also is a two-time winner this year, at Riviera and Doral. He says he is swinging as good as ever, working hard on a baby cut that allows him to control his tee shots. The greens are among the flattest for a major, and they will be slightly slower than the USGA would prefer because of all the rain.

But is it too much to ask for Mickelson to block out so much going on in his personal life?

He has done this before. Ten years ago at Pinehurst No. 2, he famously carried a pager in his golf bag because his wife was expecting their first child. Mickelson lost that U.S. Open when Payne Stewart holed a 15-foot par putt on the final hole, and Lefty arrived home just in time for the birth.

But this is far different.

"That was a week where we were excited about what's to come," he said. "And this is an entirely opposite feel, because we're scared about what's going to come."

Mickelson spent seven hours at Bethpage Black last week, and got in 18 holes Wednesday under refreshing sunshine. The test begins today, when he plays in the afternoon with Retief Goosen and Ernie Els.

"You've got to expect him to contend to win," Harmon said. "He loves this golf course. He's playing extremely well. He's got a lot of emotions right now, but I think the fans will help him."

The question is whether Mickelson can keep his focus over 72 holes of the toughest test in golf, which might be even harder with so many fans showering him with so much support.

Mickelson decided last month to take a private family matter public, which exposes he and Amy to even more emotions. One reason she chose to stay home was to avoid seeing so many friends and fans, and the tears that would be sure to follow.

Going public has an upside, however, and Mickelson already has felt it at Bethpage.

"The support," he said, "has meant the world to us."

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