- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 18, 2009

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. | Mix equal parts titanic talent, immense popularity, sentimental story line and Gotham gallery zeal, and Phil Mickelson’s quest for a U.S. Open breakthrough at Bethpage looks like a recipe for dramatic dynamite.

A month after his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, Mickelson arrived at the 109th U.S. Open on Wednesday amid a virtual tsunami of support.

“I’m putting everything I have into this week because I don’t anticipate being able to play [again] for a while,” said Mickelson, who has committed to stepping away from golf indefinitely when Amy begins her treatment July 1. “The fact that my normal support system, Amy and the kids and so forth, aren’t going to make the trip this week [means] I’m hoping to have that or feel the support [of the fans] to kind of help me through the week.”

Talk about dousing an inferno with verbal gasoline.

The 39-year-old Mickelson might have been more popular than world No. 1 Tiger Woods before last month’s painful revelation. Put him in New York, where he always has been an adopted son, and add in an ailing bride and his status as the ultimate U.S. Open bridesmaid, and Mickelson officially has broken the needle on the adoration meter.

In many ways, Mickelson’s love affair with the zealous New York fan base began at Bethpage in the 2002 U.S. Open, when he openly urged on the most boisterous galleries in major history en route to finishing runner-up to Woods. Mickelson was the people’s choice in what was then called the “People’s Open,” and that relationship only has grown in subsequent strong finishes in metro-area majors at Shinnecock Hills (second in the 2004 U.S. Open), Baltusrol (win at the 2005 PGA Championship) and Winged Foot (tied for second at the 2006 U.S. Open).

Unlike Woods, who blocks out everything around him with his laserlike focus, Mickelson embraces the energy around him and attempts to channel it. New Yorkers adore that interaction and relish Mickelson’s humanity. That humanity was never more obviously on display than at the 2006 U.S. Open, when Mickelson triple-bogeyed the final hole at Winged Foot to throw away the tournament before endearing himself with the ultimate self-deprecating declaration: “I’m such an idiot.”

The next time Woods criticizes himself with such brutal candor will be the first.

Perhaps Mickelson’s humility is a product of his familiarity with such failures. Though Mickelson has collected three major titles and 36 PGA Tour victories, he also shares a dubious record in Open lore; only Mickelson and Sam Snead have recorded four runner-up finishes in the championship without a victory.

Given the obvious emotional distractions and competitive rust he faces this week, a breakthrough at brutal 7,426-yard, par-70 Bethpage Black seems unlikely.

“If it was my wife, I don’t know how I could sit there and concentrate and play golf, to tell you the truth,” tour veteran Kenny Perry said earlier this week.

Mickelson has dealt with a major personal distraction before at an Open. With the birth of his first child imminent, Mickelson finished second to Payne Stewart in 1999 at Pinehurst while famously toting a pager that would compel him to leave the course at the first sign of a contraction.

“That was a week when we were excited about what was to come,” Mickelson remembered. “This is an entirely opposite feel because we’re scared about what’s going to come.”

Mickelson’s closest friends have noticed that emotional uncertainty in the man who has long played the game with such intrepid verve.

“I could just look in his eyes and see that he’s not his usual self,” England’s Paul Casey said. “If I can’t win, I think it would be very fitting or great if Phil would win and go away from this and take care of the family and hope Amy gets better.”

Interestingly, Mickelson feels confident in his ball striking even though he has played just once in the last month, tying for 59th at last week’s St. Jude Classic. His putting has been woeful of late, but Mickelson has never rolled the ball well on the Bermuda greens that doomed his last two starts, resulting in an average of 30 putts a round at the Players Championship and St. Jude Classic.

“I’ve actually been hitting the ball better than I have in a long time, possibly ever,” said Mickelson, who is looking forward to this week’s transition to poa annua greens. “I think the key for me will be on the greens. I putted these greens very well in 2002, and if I have a good putting week, I expect to be in contention on Sunday.”

If Mickelson’s name is on the leader board come Sunday, Bethpage just might spontaneously combust, Woods might face the first truly hostile crowd of his career and the Mickelsons might get to share a few last tears of joy before facing the future’s uncertainty.

“[Amy]’s left me a number of little notes, texts, cards and 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.”

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