FARMINGDALE, N.Y. – No matter the score posted on the leaderboard, whether red or black, a small country's worth of people will stalk Phil Mickelson on Thursday. They will hoot. They will holler. They will offer him their nasally Long Island best. And he will do everything he can to reciprocate.
The relationship between the fans at Bethpage State Park's Black Course, site of the 109th U.S. Open, and Mickelson, Bethpage's paramour at the 2002 Open, is rather curious. There are no geographical ties, nothing hewn by sentimentality. Just the organic growth of a mutual-admiration society between the country's most fickle fans and Mickelson, their walking paradox: a hypertalented underdog.
For the first time, he needs them as much as they need him. Mickelson is alone this week. His wife, Amy, is readying for breast cancer surgery. His children are at home. This is Mickelson's escape, and it may be the first of its kind: a respite joined by tens of thousands of people.
All of whom should gear up for some level of disappointment. Because Mickelson can't win this Open. He can't, and he won't, and that is too bad, because it would be every bit the story of Tiger Woods winning last year's on one leg.
Physical skills alone do not conquer Bethpage Black – and there alone Mickelson is rusty after a short layoff following Amy's announcement in May. Mickelson's mind weighs too heavy on matters beyond golf, which is doom on an Open course that begs for the utmost concentration from those who intend to conquer it. None of this is to fault Mickelson. His dedication to his legions inspired this appearance when he just as well could sit at home and support Amy.
"I'm putting everything I have into this week," Mickelson said, and considering his upcoming schedule, that sounds about right. Next week, Mickelson goes on vacation with Amy and their three children. The following week, July 1, Amy will undergo surgery. And Mickelson said he won't return until at least August, skipping the British Open and perhaps the PGA Championship.
The Mickelson jones is a strong one, more addiction than admiration. People love him for his genial public persona, sure, but it's more than that. Mickelson is a born swashbuckler, someone equally capable of a mind-numbing gaffe as he is a gifted shot. He plays like we want him to play, which is not necessarily how he should play.
To love Mickelson is also to know disappointment. He is the boyfriend who brings a surprise bouquet of Gerbera daisies and then forgets your birthday. Though the initial jolt of each Mickelson frustration abates, it does not abandon, and his collection is worthy of a Ripley's museum.
The greatest – perspective-dependent, of course – came in the '06 Open at Winged Foot, about 20 miles northwest of the Black course and, like it, designed by A.W. Tillinghast. Mickelson was shooting for his third consecutive major victory and held a one-stroke lead heading into the 18th hole. Par meant a win. Mickelson instead hit such a succession of dim-witted shots – his scattershot drive off the hospitality tent, and his iron out clanging off a tree, and his approach plopping in a bunk – that he declared, following his tournament-losing double bogey: "I am such an idiot."
Well, yeah. And yet that's part of Mickelson's allure, that he is human and he does make mistakes and in order to be a hero in the truest sense, fallibility and flaws must exist. The Winged Foot disaster is offset by the 2004 Masters, Mickelson's first major victory, in which he sank an 18-foot birdie putt on the 18th green to win, or by the brilliant 30 he shot on the front nine at the Masters this year, or by his performance at Pinehurst 10 years ago.
Mickelson wore a beeper around the course, anticipating Amy might go into labor. She was pregnant with their first child, and he vowed to be there, even if it meant leaving when in contention. Mickelson finished second. Amanda Brynn Mickelson was born less than 24 hours later.
At Bethpage the first time, the atmosphere was even more chaotic, even though Mickelson ended up in second and three strokes behind Woods. This time, the excitement is tempered by fear. He wants to stay strong and believes he can feed off the crowds that will huzzah at the slightest movement of his ear hair.
"I feel like emotionally I'm better," Mickelson said. "But you just never know."
Whichever Mickelson shows up, the sustenance of high-quality golf over four days is likelier in theory than practice. Mickelson can speak with all the optimism he desires – "I've actually been hitting the ball better than I have in a long time," he said Tuesday, "and possibly ever" – as long as he understands the expectations for him don't necessitate it. He tied for 59th at the St. Jude's Classic last week. He needn't push too hard, though that's like asking a mole not to burrow too deep.
Mickelson's presence is enough. The acolytes know that he turned 39 on Tuesday, and that 40 is something of a cutoff line for consistent championship-level play in majors. Even if those following him believe he is there mostly to enthuse, Mickelson showed up here to win, egged on by his wife.
"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," Mickelson said. "So I'm going to try to accommodate that."
Even if he doesn't, the disappointment won't run too deep. Mickelson is ready to deliver a show to his coterie, their voices a choir of support, their heartfelt pleas reminding him of what he received in exchange for a week away from his family.
Solitude, and a date with thousands upon thousands of his good friends.