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Phil Mickelson chooses fatherhood first, then races toward top of U.S. Open leaderboard

ARDMORE, Pa. – Phil Mickelson showed up to the U.S. Open on Thursday. He didn't do much before the rains came at Merion Golf Club to suspend play, but he showed up for work, with 90 minutes to spare, at 5:37 a.m, and went on to fire a 3-under 67 to put him in the lead.

He cut it so close because he wanted to show up earlier this week in San Diego, for his oldest daughter's eighth-grade graduation. Amanda Mickelson is done with junior high now, going on to high school. Yeah, it's only an eighth-grade graduation, and Mickelson lost valuable practice time (not to mention sleep) while his competitors got familiar with a complex course. Amanda said she understood if Dad wanted to stay in Philadelphia. It's the US Open. But Dad said, "I want to be there." So he flew overnight, coast-to-coast, from his home in San Diego to his place of work, which this week is Philadelphia.

He slept two hours on the plane, one before tee time and one more during the weather delay, which halted play for some three hours.

"I feel great," he said after his round.

[Related: Phil Mickelson's recent surge puts him in U.S. Open discussion]

Mickelson wanted to be there 14 years ago, when he carried a pager around at Pinehurst, vowing he would walk off the course and out of the final round of the U.S. Open if his wife, Amy, went into labor. Mickelson finished the tournament, losing in a heartbreaker to Payne Stewart, who walked right over to him on the 18th green, held Mickelson's face in his hands, and told him there was something far more important about to happen: fatherhood.

Amanda Mickelson was born the next day.

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Payne Stewart consoles Phil Mickelson after beating him in the 1999 U.S. Open. (AP)

Stewart died in a plane accident four months later. He was 42.

Amanda's dad is now 42.

Parents make the extra effort for their children every single day because they love their babies, but also because they never know what fate might bring. To be a parent is the ultimate celebration of life, but it also comes with the sober and unspoken preparation for the day when you're not there anymore to care for them. We pray that day comes much later on, but we know that's not up to us. Jason Leffler, the NASCAR driver who was killed in a crash just a few miles from here Wednesday night, attended his son's kindergarten graduation just three weeks ago.

Father's Day, always tied to the U.S. Open and the game of golf, can be equal parts jubilant and sad. We are elated to give our kids a hug on Father's Day, and we are crushed when we can't get a hug from a father who is no longer with us. How many sons remember watching the final round of the U.S. Open with our fathers, and how many of us still watch a great putt or sand save and think, Dad would have loved this?

There aren't many golf fans, dads or otherwise, who don't want Phil Mickelson to win a U.S. Open. He's the people's champion, beloved especially here in the Northeast, even though he's from the Southwest. He's been a U.S. Open runner-up five times, sometimes making the same mental mistakes we make on weekends at the muni.

Philadelphia folks got on the train early Thursday to line up in the muddy grass and watch him on 16 – Mickelson started on No. 11 – then they hustled up a steep hill, holding their coffee cups and panting, then scrambling into the grandstands behind 17 only to have to leave moments later when the weather horn blew. They got a glimpse, and when play resumed Mickelson gave them something to cheer about. He carded four birdies on the day – two coming on long birdie putts – against only one bogey. That was good enough to give him the outright lead of a tournament that, in 22 previous attempts, has eluded him.

If he never wins the US Open, Mickelson said it will be "heartbreaking." But, he said, he thinks he will win one.

Mickelson appeals to a lot of dads, with his blend of daring and goofy, cool and seemingly approachable. He has his serious moments and his lighter ones, often within the same few minutes on the same hole. He's been touched by triumph and tragedy, famously leaping two inches off the ground when he won the Masters for the first time, and then sharing a long and emotional embrace with Amy after winning at Augusta in 2010, a year after she was diagnosed with cancer.

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Phil Mickelson with his kids Evan, Amanda, and Sophia at the Masters. (Getty Images)

He's been brave and vulnerable, the way a lot of good dads are. He's worked hard, succeeding and failing at work, putting extra time in when he'd rather be home. Yes, it must be nice for a guy with a plane to jet from one coast to the other to play for millions in front of millions. This isn't like driving through snow to drop your daughter off at swim practice at 4 a.m. before going to a construction site. Phil Mickelson is not everyman. But dads can relate. Even though Phil is a celebrity who's as unknowable as Tiger Woods or Rory McIlroy, with him we always seem to relate.

Mickelson looked tired Thursday morning as he walked through the early part of his round. It's the look so many dads know: the weariness of getting up early, or staying up late, making sure the kids get to school or making sure they get home. It may have cost Mickelson a stroke or two, which can be all the difference in this tournament. No matter. Payne Stewart was right: showing up to see your child is the greatest thing a man can ever feel.

 

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