- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 13, 2010

ST. ANDREWS, SCOTLAND (AP) - Phil Mickelson rolled in an 18-foot birdie putt on the final hole of practice _ oh, how he’d love to be in that same position for a win at the British Open come Sunday _ then headed off to take care of his other duties.

“Give me about 10 or 15 minutes,” the People’s Champion shouted toward the fans clamoring for his autograph. “I’ll be right over there, behind the stands, to sign for you.”

After collecting his valuables and taking a brief respite in the St. Andrews clubhouse, Mickelson popped out on cue behind a barrier along Golf Place.

He worked up and down the line, looking everyone in the eye as he signed. He bantered with the crowd. He put his signature on everything from visors to programs to flags. The only time he balked was when someone put forward a ball to sign _ a no-no for Mickelson, who, like many athletes, knows that sort of keepsake will usually make its way straight to eBay.

“No balls. I don’t sign balls,” Mickelson said politely. “Anything else I can get for you?”

Some may believe this is all an act. Some may believe that Mickelson sets aside ample time for signing at every tournament merely to improve his image, not because he feels any genuine connection with the fans.

Just try telling that to those people who walked away with an autograph and a sense that he really cares about them. Just listen to the roars if Mickelson walks toward the 18th green with a chance to claim the claret jug and add a fifth major title to an already impressive resume.

“Did you get Phil?” a British woman shouted to her son, who’d snared a prime spot at the front of railing.

“Yes, I got him,” he replied.

“Ohhhh, brilliant,” she said, breaking into a relieved grin.

Mickelson said he feels a “spiritual” connection with St. Andrews, the birthplace of golf and a course that he feels gives him a real shot at winning his first British Open title, with its wide-open spaces that allow one to pull out the driver all around the course.

Indeed, there’s nothing he loves better than just gripping and ripping, even if it means throwing caution to that persistent wind sweeping in off St. Andrews Bay.

“I expect to play well here, I really do,” Mickelson said Tuesday. “I expect to be in contention.”

The chance to share triumphs with his fans _ and, yes, even the foibles _ are just as important, he added, even if some in the media and maybe even a fellow golfer or two might be skeptical of his motives.

“I’ve been very fortunate to have support from fans,” Mickelson said. “It’s meant a lot to me over the course of my career. It’s made it fun to go to the golf course, and it’s made it fun to interact with people, and it’s made it fun to spend time after rounds signing autographs and interacting.

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