Phil Mickelson could not help himself. He needed to focus on a pivotal 6-foot putt in a stirring charge, but he just had to look at the huge crowd and drink in the piercing cheer it was giving him. That happened 10 years ago, on the 17th green at Bethpage Black, but it might just as well have been yesterday, it is so vivid for him.
"That sound was just about as loud as anything I've experienced on tour," he told reporters gathered in the Bethpage clubhouse, recalling the 2002 U.S. Open. He didn't win that event, but the people there made him feel as if he had. Bethpage was the site at which Mickelson became a sentimental favorite, an alternative fan idol to Tiger Woods, who won that Open.
There is no explaining why Long Island fans spontaneously adopted him that week, 10 years ago, at a time when most golf fans only had eyes for Woods. But the feeling is mutual, and he expects it to be right on the surface again in the Barclays, which is making its Black Course debut this year.
"I don't know what to say about it, other than that my wife and I love the New York area," he said. "We love spending time there. It's a great educational city for us to bring our kids and share all the cultures New York has to offer. But from a golf standpoint, New York has provided me some of my most memorable experiences in my golf career, some of the most emotional experiences of my golf career and I'm very appreciative of the way that people have treated me and my family."
Mickelson said his wife, Amy, is feeling well in her recovery from breast cancer and that he is unrestricted by his own arthritic condition. Acknowledging that his play the past two months "has not been what I want" and citing his failure to make the cut at the British Open, he said: "This last week was a great week for me, practice-wise. My game has really made a turn."
Yes, he has been watching the Olympics and has dreamed of being an Olympian when golf rejoins the Summer Games in 2016. "Albeit an old Olympic athlete," the 42-year-old said.
But he is looking forward to the rest of this year, especially a stop at the course he calls "one of my favorite places in all of golf."
"I'm not really sure of what to expect as far as how the course will be set up relative to when the USGA gets a hold of it," he said, "but Bethpage is such a difficult, straightforward challenge and test of good golf that regardless of the conditions, the design and setup of the course will be a great challenge.
"But one of the best things about Bethpage is the people."