Phil Mickelson had played in two major championships in the New York Metropolitan area before he arrived to Bethpage Black for the 2002 U.S. Open.
But it was at that ’02 U.S. Open at Bethpage when the love affair between Mickelson and New York-area fans blossomed.
It was then when it seemed the entire golf world knew his birthday (June 16) fell on one of the days of the U.S. Open. It was there where fans first serenaded him with a spirited rendition of “Happy Birthday’’ on the first tee.
And ever since then, it’s been an enduring love affair that has outlasted many marriages.
Mickelson, 48, returns to Bethpage Black this week for the PGA Championship, and the love between him and New York is as strong as it’s ever been. It’s a bond that Mickelson, who’s coming off a sloppy missed cut at last week’s Wells Fargo Championship and conceded he’s “nervous’’ about his form, hopes energizes him and helps raise his level of play.
This will be the 10th major championship in the New York Metropolitan area Mickelson has competed in. In the previous nine, he has a win (in the 2005 PGA at Baltusrol), four runner-up finishes (in the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage, 2004 U.S. Open at Shinnecock, the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot and the 2009 U.S. Open at Bethpage) and a tie for fourth (in the 1995 U.S. Open at Shinnecock).
It’s always been a curious relationship — a Californian being embraced as a native son by New Yorkers.
“I don’t want to question it, because they’ve been so good to me,’’ Mickelson said. “It can be a difficult place to play or it can be a great place to play, and for me it’s been a great place to play. I love coming back to play there. I love going to the area. I love playing in front of the New York fans.
“It started in ’02 — I think that’s where things kind of clicked and people were really supportive. I could definitely feel it. I didn’t know why, I just know that I appreciated it. And it’s been that way ever since and the people there have been great to me.’’
The affinity New York fans have for Mickelson despite his West Coast roots stems from a couple of things: He’s endured some of his most crushing disappointments, the deepest cuts of his career, in major championships played in New York and has handled each with stand-up class, and the fans love his aggressive go-for-broke playing style.
Mickelson lost the 2004 U.S. Open at Shinnecock when a three-putt bogey on the par-3 17th hole derailed him in the final round and allowed Retief Goosen to win.
He famously lost the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot when he made a mess of the 72nd hole, hitting his driver onto a corporate tent and his second shot off of a tree. Afterward he declared, “I am such an idiot.’’
He finished runner-up to Tiger Woods at the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage and was in contention to win the 2009 U.S. Open at Bethpage when a killer three-putt bogey on No. 15 in the final round left him to finish runner-up to Lucas Glover, who won his only career major.
“It’s nice that I have another chance to go win another major at such a great place and such fun area in front of fans I want to play in front of,’’ Mickelson said. “I’m excited to go back. The thing about Bethpage is it is a big ballpark. It is a long, hard golf course. But there’s enough space on the golf course where you don’t feel handcuffed. You feel like you can swing the driver. There’s plenty of area to hit it.
“And when you get on the greens, they’re fair. You’re not hitting a great 4-iron to 12 feet and having to play defense because the putt is going to run 10 feet by if you’re giving it too much. The greens are flat enough where you can make putts, so I feel like there’s great reward if you hit good shots.’’
The greater reward figures to be the massive swell of support Mickelson will have from the crowds at Bethpage.
“It’s a different feel than a lot of majors because of how the crowds are,’’ Mickelson said. “It has a higher energy and you feel the crowd more. It is a special feel to be in contention in New York and feel the crowd. It’s different than at any other place.’’
Mickelson played a pre-tournament practice round at Bethpage last Wednesday and, when asked via text while en route back to California what he thought of the place, he replied, “It’s immaculate.’’
“The thing I like about Bethpage is the greens are [flat] and you can make a lot of putts,’’ he said. “If I putt well there, I’m going to have a good week.’’