The leader of The Barclays was walking off the 13th green, having made an important birdie that brought him to 9 under par, and the crowd was going crazy. Not for Patrick Reed. The people were cheering their hearts out for Phil Mickelson, who just had made par to remain 1 over.
It kept going that way right to the clubhouse for Mickelson, the people’s choice at the people’s course. He has been a hero at Bethpage Black since the Long Island crowd spontaneously adopted him during the 2002 U.S. Open. He still is, even when he is closer to missing the cut than making a run, as he was Friday.
As he approached the par-3 14th green, he was loudly saluted by the patrons in the tent overlooking it, a spirited (wink, wink) chateau called the William Hill Estate Wine Lounge. Mickelson merely had to walk toward his ball and folks in there chanted “Phil! Phil! Phil! Phil!” They gave him a hero’s sendoff after another par. Someone shouted, “Give us a wave, Phil!” and he gave them a thumbs up, which provoked a louder cheer.
On his way across the road to the 15th tee, he gave his golf ball to a child and gave a fist bump to a man, who later was heard telling a friend, “I got it on video!”
By any measure, the crowds at Bethpage Black this week were smaller and quieter than they were for the Opens in 2002 and 2009. Except for the cheering directed at one man. Mickelson got some major love.
He also got serious mojo when he was at 2 over following a bogey on No. 15 and appeared to be right on the cut line (it eventually became 3 over, but no one could tell at the time). Mickelson gave his public what it wanted and gave himself what he needed when he floated a 5-iron 210 yards to the 17th green, landed it 7 feet from the hole and made the birdie putt to reach 1 over. “It was the only putt I made all day,” he said, without mentioning that if he only had done that in 2009, his name would be on the U.S. Open trophy and he would be on that short list of modern Grand Slam winners.
The thing is, Mickelson does not get bogged down by disappointment. He keeps on trying and seeing the bright side, which is one of the reasons people here like him so much. “I’m excited about the weekend,” he said after shooting 73, “because any time you have a chance to play on this golf course in front of this crowd, it’s an incredible experience.”
As he spoke with reporters outside the clubhouse, a crowd, composed mostly of young people, kept cheering him. A child’s voice shouted, “Phil, I’m a lefty just like you!”
“It’s great. I love it,” Mickelson said. “People are incredible here. It’s fun and it’s a unique experience.”
Even playing partner Reed got a kick out of it. “They were loud. They were getting rowdy as the day was going on and it was fun. It was good,” he said after a 68 that topped the field at 8 under. “I was able to feed off energy from the crowd and kind of run with it.”
Who knows if this is Phil’s last hurrah as a player at Bethpage? The PGA Championship will be here in 2019, but will he be able to contend in a major on this behemoth at 49?
In any case, the smart money says he will be named captain of the U.S. Ryder Cup team when that event is held on the Black in 2024. When they finally are ready to make that official, they shouldn’t hold a news conference in a fancy restaurant. They should have a public rally at Bethpage State Park and let the crowd make the introduction: “Phil! Phil! Phil! Phil!”