PINEHURST, NC - Phil Mickelson walked up the 18th fairway at Pinehurst to the cheers of the gallery and the chimes of the nearby Village Chapel. He was making this walk, hearing these cheers, about three hours earlier than he'd wanted; yet again a trip to the US Open would end without a trophy for Mickelson.
It was a weekend to forget for Phil, but for two fans who accompanied him around the course on Sunday, it's a day they'll remember forever.
Over all 18 of Pinehurst's sand-strewn, wire-and-scrub-grass-laden holes, John Finn pushed his son David. They accompanied Mickelson inside the ropes as guests of Phil himself. It was the kind of constant, personal connection between athlete and fan that's not possible in any other sport, and neither John nor David could stop grinning.
"This has just been amazing," John said, cooling down in the shade next to Pinehurst's famed Payne Stewart statue. "We've met Phil before, but this is the first time we've walked all 18 with him."
"David, he's a great kid," Mickelson said after Sunday's round. "He's been with us for a long time. He's been out at a number of tournaments for almost a decade now. His dad, John, is a great man."
"Great" isn't a label John would apply to himself. The high school teacher from Ramsey, N.J. just loves his son enough to take him to three to four golf tournaments a year in a wheelchair with "David Finn, The Golf Fanatic" inscribed on the back.
David, age 21, has a form of muscular dystrophy that virtually immobilizes him in his wheelchair. His body lies twisted in painfully unnatural ways, and one of the tragedies of his condition is that his mind is as sharp as anyone's at Pinehurst. What brings him great joy, though, is watching golf, both live and on television.
They first met Mickelson at the 2005 PGA Championship at Baltusrol. They were there on Tuesday before the tournament when Mickelson spotted them. He walked over to David, said, "Hey, buddy, thanks for coming out," and handed him a signed glove. When Mickelson won the tournament, he spotted David in the crowd at the 18th hole, and made sure that David got a photo with the trophy.
Since then, the Finns have visited tournaments large and small, meeting David's heroes face to face at nearly every stop. In a pocket on the back of David's wheelchair, John carries a small purple portfolio full of photos featuring all the celebrities whom David has met. It's beyond impressive.
There's David with the Wanamaker Trophy for winning the 2005 PGA Championship, and eight years later, David with Phil's 2013 Claret jug for winning the Open Championship. There's David with Michael Jordan, and President George W. Bush, and Arnold Palmer, and Jack Nicklaus, and so many more. (Many of the photos are online at David's Facebook page, the wryly titled "Golf Fanatic To The Bones.") But first and last, it's Mickelson that dominates David's collection.
"They have gotten pretty close to me and Bones [Mackay, Mickelson's caddy] over the years," Mickelson said. "They're just wonderful people and I love seeing guys like that support the game and love coming out."
The Finns got to North Carolina on Saturday and made their way to Pinehurst No. 2 early Sunday morning. They made their way to the putting green and driving range adjacent to the clubhouse, and that's where Phil and Bones spotted them.
"When they saw us, they said, 'why don't you come with us?'" John recalls. "And when we got over there [to the first tee], they said, 'Why don't you come inside the ropes, and stay as long as you want?' So we went all 18!"
And when Phil Mickelson wants something done, the USGA snaps into action. Tournament volunteers provided the Finns with inside-the-ropes access and water throughout the round. Mickelson didn't play particularly well, posting a two-over-par 72 to finish the tournament 16 strokes back of winner Martin Kaymer. But for the Finns, the score was an afterthought. The experience was the joy.
When Mickelson finished, he gave David a wink and descended the stairs the Pinehurst clubhouse. As David and John edged their way through the fencing that surrounded the 18th green, the crowd around them began to erupt in spontaneous applause. One of the security guards that had been accompanying the Finns leaned down to give David a hug. John lifted David's thin arm and wrapped it around the neck of the burly guard.
"What a day," John smiled to David. "And it's not over yet!" He dabbed at the sweat on his head with a towel and nodded at the looming grandstands that bordered the 18th hole. "We're going to watch a lot more golf."
How does John do it? Not just pushing a heavy wheelchair around 18 holes of sand, which John allowed "wasn't too bad because it's mostly flat." But how does he remain upbeat in the face of the disease that's ravaging his son?
"When you have something terrible happen to you, you can do one of two things," John said. "You can accept it and make the best of it, or you can let it defeat you. You can see what choice we've made."
Soon afterward, John and David headed back toward the course. There were three more hours of golf to see.