New York State of Mind

By Rex HoggardJune 17, 2009, 4:00 pm
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2009 U.S. OpenFARMINGDALE, N.Y. ' Phil Mickelson was born in Southern California. He sports a home with a dinosaur head and a space rock in Scottsdale and logs more flight hours in the G4 than a GM executive. But somewhere along the way from Bethpage to Winged Foot and back to Bethpage, he became New York ' like Woody Allen and graffiti.
Spray paint this on the side of the West Broadway local: NYC loves Lefty.
So imagine the show when the adopted prodigal son grinned and glad-handed his way around Bethpage Black on Wednesday, about a month removed from the type of news that changes lives and seven years removed from a championship run that changed the loyalties of an entire city.
Phil Mickelson
Phil Mickelson enjoys his practice round Wednesday at Bethpage. (Getty Images)
Or, as one fan mused midway through Wednesdays madness: Is this Wednesday or Sunday?
Didnt matter, at least not to the better part of two burrows who gathered in this corner of Long Island to watch Mickelson, who, by the by, didnt hit a single shot that counted. That comes Thursday when the intensity promises to climb even higher.
Before he headed out for his collective hug, Mickelson met with the press. Funny, this time last year we were grilling the left-hander about his no-driver experiment and a Day 1 pairing with Tiger Woods at Torrey Pines. On Wednesday most scribes were just glad to see him because that means Amy Mickelsons condition is not as bad as originally feared.
Amy Mickelson, the Tour staple who celebrated her husbands breakthrough victory at the 2004 Masters and his heartbreaking loss at Winged Foot in 2006 with equal grace and verve, was diagnosed with breast cancer last month and Mickelson suspended his schedule indefinitely, a dire sign for those who read tea leaves.
But Leftys return last week at Memphis and to the scene of his 2002 U.S. Open near miss this week was a reason to exhale. The road ahead is still daunting, but the medical mountain suddenly doesnt seem so high. And Amy, never one to let her man off without dig, had a simple request to help ease her into treatment.
She's left me a number of little notes, texts, cards, hints, that she would like to have a silver trophy in her hospital room, said Mickelson, who plans to be by his wifes side on July 1 when she begins treatment. So I'm going to try to accommodate that.
More so than anyone not named Woods, Mickelson shows up at Grand Slam events with a single purpose. Truth is he probably has no idea how many top 10s hes posted in major championships and doesnt care. This week is no different, despite the circumstances or the serenading.
On Wednesday Mickelson said he was confident in his game, adding that he may be hitting the ball better than he ever has. A prevailing school of thought in these parts is that time between the ropes will provide him with an escape from his wifes medical fortunes, if just for a few hours.
I did enjoy having a bit of a reprieve, if you will, in getting on a golf course and forcing myself to concentrate on something else, Mickelson said of his week in Memphis.
After his press conference Mickelson headed out into the cool morning to join Bones and Butch and what seemed like 30,000 of his closest friends and associates. If Mickelson doesnt land that coveted silver trophy ' the one he let slip through his fingers at Winged Foot and Pinehurst ' it wont be from a lack of support from the NYC faithful.
Its a measure of a mans popularity when his caddie pulls more applause than almost anyone else in the field. But then Mickelson roars are as much a part of Bethpage now as forced carries and public golf zealots who sleep in cars for tee times.
On the 13th green one fan started a curious trend, barking out: Youre a beautiful man Phil Mickelson. On the ninth green an entire gallery broke into a chorus of Happy Birthday, to celebrate Lefty turning 39 on Tuesday.
In between there was golf, smiles and more well-wishers than a census man could count. Exactly what Mickelson needed. An escape, where Butch Harmon was less swing coach and more counsel and Jim Bones Mackay was less caddie and more companion. Lean on me Grand Slam style.
Included in Wednesdays four-ball was three major champions and Darron Stiles, a curious fourth wheel who has had more than his share of personal tragedy and between-the-ropes therapy this season.
Stiles, who has been alongside an aunt and sister-in-law who battled breast cancer, was hardly 18 holes into his fifth year on Tour at Januarys Sony Open when his wife called to tell him his father had just passed away.
Stiles withdrew from the Sony, raced home and has struggled with his emotions and his game ever since.
I still think about my dad every day, so it definitely helps to be out here, Stiles said. I can feel what (Mickelson) is going through. Theres a lot inside thats not coming out, but from the outside hes doing real well.
Mickelsons ability to internalize Amys plight and focus on the most demanding four rounds in golf remains to be seen.
At the 1995 Masters Ben Crenshaw funneled the pain of losing longtime swing coach and friend Harvey Penick into a green jacket. However, three years ago just across Long Island at Winged Foot Tiger Woods, mentally the strongest golfer of this and maybe any generation, struggled in the wake of his father Earls passing and missed the cut. Its the only time hes missed a cut at a major as a pro. The point? It can go either way.
One thing is for certain, if Mickelson can compartmentalize the fire, then the fan base is in place for the most inspiring Open victory since, well, last year at Torrey Pines.
Midway through his round Mickelson found himself deep in a greenside sand trap at the 18th. Butchie, he smiled, tell me if this goes in.
Youll hear it, Harmon correctly reasoned.
And if Mickelson can align the proper stars and hoist silver on Sunday, theyll hear it from Montauk to Manhattan.
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