SPRINGFIELD, N.J. — The home-crowd advantage really came into play at the PGA Championship Thursday, for a golfer who lives 2,741 miles away. Phil Mickelson, born and raised and happily settled in Southern California, got a huge boost again from New York-area fans who have made him an honorary native son.
By now, it is such second nature that people no longer think of the geographical oddity. Mickelson never has lived anywhere close to New York City and generally only comes through during tournaments, at which he is treated as if he came from Canarsie or Kew Gardens.
It happened again at Baltusrol Golf Club, where Mickelson delivered a toast-of-the-town victory in the 2005 PGA. He stumbled at the start Thursday, going 4-over through 11 holes and putting himself on the verge of being instantly irrelevant. Then he got a boost. “I’ll tell you what was a big thing for me today: the people out here, the crowd,” he said after finishing at 1-over, well within striking distance.
Replaying it in his mind later, he saw it this way: “I’m hard on myself. I’m down. The people helped to really kind of pick me back up. I remember walking off No. 3 (his 12th hole of the day) and a guy said, ‘Hey, you’ve got a lot of golf left. You’re not out of this. Let’s get going.’
“He’s right. I’ve got a lot of golf left. I came back and made some birdies. I birdied that hole,” Mickelson said.
True, it was probably was more of his golf swing rather than a mood swing that changed his day. He got into the flow, as he put it. But he insisted that there was no way to downplay the vocal backing. “The support that the people here in New Jersey, the New York metropolitan area have given me over the years . . . today was the day that it helped me the most,” he said.
What he and his fans might have forgotten, or never have known, is how this unusual relationship began. But those of us who were there on that day know. It all goes back to June 16, 2002, during the fourth round of the U.S. Open at Bethpage Black, when fans adopted him.
On several holes, they sang, “Happy Birthday” to him. Someone made a personal appeal for birdies, shouting, “Hey Phil, we’re sick of going ‘Ooooooh,’ ” mindful that ‘Ooooooh’ is the sound of a putt that missed. Noticing the approaching dark clouds, someone else yelled, “Everyone’s dying here, Phil, let’s go!” And when he had a tap-in for par, one more healthy-lungs fan bellowed, “That’s a gimme!”
All of that is what you say to a brother or a buddy. Thus was born Phil’s legacy as a New York icon.
To fully appreciate how unique this was, you have to recall the context. Back then, Tiger Woods owned golf. At every tournament, he was a rock star, and the only one. Each tour stop was a collective swoon for Woods, who would win that Open. But the Long Island crowd was secure and creative enough to get behind an underdog. Mickelson, then still two years shy of his first major title, was their pick. He has been the people’s choice ever since.
The chatter from the gallery was not as colorful Thursday as it had been back then — an early Thursday morning doesn’t evoke the spirit of a late Sunday afternoon. It was strong and heartfelt nonetheless.
He might have a little competition for local affection from Andrew (Beef) Johnston, the round-bellied, bushy-bearded, meat-loving Englishman. The fervor for him reached a crescendo when he made birdie on No. 18 to finish at par. There was a loud chorus of “Beeeeeef.”
“Even if I had a bad hole, there were some real nice comments out there: ‘Don’t worry, get it back on the next,’ ” Johnston said. “Just real positive comments.”
But the most telling and pivotal comments were directed toward the golfer who feels right at home around here, a continent away from his house.