Match made in heaven: Mickelson, New York perfect for each other
By Clifton Brown, PGATOUR.COM Columnist
With New York sports fans, loyalties are often divided between the Yankees and Mets, Giants and Jets.
When it comes to Phil Mickelson, New York unites. New York loves Mickelson.
When he tees off next week in upstate Rochester, N.Y., for the PGA Championship, it will sound like a home game for Mickelson. It will be the same later this month, when he plays The Barclays in Jersey City. N. J., across the river from Manhattan.
Mickelson’s popularity is not unique to the New York area. It’s global. Blowing past the competition to win The Open Championship in comeback style, like Mickelson did last month, does wonders for your Q-rating.
However, New York was curiously ahead of the curve embracing Mickelson. It started way back in 2002 at the U. S. Open at Bethpage Black. Mickelson hadn’t even won a major yet, and he didn’t win at Bethpage in ’02. Tiger Woods did.
Yet, during those four days at Bethpage, something clicked between New Yorkers and Mickelson. I was there, covering the U. S. Open for the New York Times. Mickelson’s galleries were huge. They were deafening. Mickelson didn’t win, but he won over New Yorkers. Eleven years later, New York still turns into Mickelsonville whenever he comes back.
What gives? Don’t New Yorkers know Mickelson’s from the other coast? That he roots for the Chargers, not the Jets or Giants?
Doesn’t matter. Why not? Here are a couple of theories.
-- New Yorkers love a show.
You’ve heard of Broadway. Watching Mickelson is great theatre. Mickelson doesn’t do boring golf. He dares to be bold. Sometimes his bravado makes him a hero. Sometimes it costs him. But you remember those moments. You remember those shots, the ones he pulls off, and the ones he doesn’t. When Mickelson’s on stage, nobody asks for a refund after the curtain drops.
“He a riverboat gambler, that’s the way he plays golf,” Joe Rehor, director of golf at Bethpage Black, where Mickelson competed in the 2002 and 2009 U. S. Opens. “Too many players today are robots, playing from point A to point B, point B to point C. Mickelson wants to skip point B. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But the playing population relates to that mentality. They respect it.”
-- New Yorkers respect resiliency.
Mickelson came up short in his first 43 starts at major championships before finally winning the Masters in 2004. Before that, many viewed Mickelson as an underachiever. That had to hurt. But when Mickelson is knocked down, he gets back up. New Yorkers know a little something about being resilient, and they respect it.
When Mickelson played the Open for the second time at Bethpage in 2009, his wife, Amy, had just been diagnosed with breast cancer. Of course, that made New York galleries embrace Mickelson even more. He appreciated the support. The bond between Mickelson and New York grew stronger. He finished two shots behind Lucas Glover, one of Mickelson’s record six runner-up finishes in the U.S. Open.
Give Mickelson credit for being a people person too, a trait that New Yorkers have embraced. He signs autographs. He speaks to fans. He smiles when he plays. The fans are not inside the ropes with Mickelson. But they feel like they are, because Mickelson acknowledges their presence. Not everyone can play their best golf interacting with fans as much as Mickelson does, but he seems to thrive off the energy provided by his galleries.
Which bring us to this week. Mickelson will be stoked for the PGA Championship, and huge galleries will be waiting for him. He has never won a tournament in New York. He has never won two majors in the same year.
He could accomplish both feats by winning at Oak Hill. Sounds similar to last month, when Mickelson had never won The Open Championship before he took Muirfield by storm. Mickelson prepared meticulously for the British and it paid off. He’s doing the same for the PGA, taking a recent trip to Oak Hill for a practice round.
Mickelson is back at Oak Hill this week, and all his best friends from New York will be waiting. It will be something to watch. It will most definitely be loud.