The New York crowds love Phil Mickelson, and he returns the affection with half-hour autograph sessions and selfies, jokes and fashion tips.
It’s the courses in the area that seem intent on torturing him.
The five-time major champion is back in the area this week for the PGA Championship at Bethpage Black, where he has finished second both times the course hosted the U.S. Open. In fact, of his six runner-up finishes in the Open, four have been in New York.
“It’s the best playing here. It really is,” Mickelson, who did not have a media interview session, told the Golf Channel after his nine-hole practice round on Wednesday. “I would love nothing more than to have a victory here and be able to feed off the energy here that the people have provided me over the years and be able to reward it with a victory.”
A 48-year-old from San Diego, Mickelson has felt at home in the New York area since winning the crowd over at the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage, when he was closing in on the lead before Tiger Woods hit a 2-iron onto the green on the par-5 13th hole and made birdie. Mickelson posted two late bogeys to finish three shots back.
“That’s where I felt things kind of clicked” with the New York fans, he said after this month’s Wells Fargo Championship. “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. … It is a special feeling to be in contention in the New York area.”
It’s a feeling he knows well.
Mickelson spent a few days practicing at Bethpage last week and returned with a stylized Statue of Liberty on his golf bag on Wednesday, a day after tweeting his take on the iconic “I Love New York” logo, with his own silhouette in the place of the heart . He drew a crowd four-deep at the driving range, and on the way to the practice green he stopped for pictures with a New York State Police dog named Del.
The gallery whooped at his approach on the 18th, and then he spent more than 30 minutes signing autographs, bouncing back and forth to each side of the rope line. He spoke with one fan about his grandmother, and he confessed to another the real reason he wears black: “Honestly, it’s ’cause I’m fat.”
On a day when the temperature peaked in the mid-60s, Mickelson was one of the few players to wear shorts. Asked if he would wear them again on Thursday, he pointed out that that is only allowed for practice rounds.
Which is good, he noted, because “these young guys, their calves haven’t fully developed yet.”
But if coming to New York brings out the best in his personality, it seems to bring out the second-best in his golf game.
Seven years after the runner-up finish to Woods in ’02, Mickelson was tied for the lead with five holes to play when he missed a short par putt on the 15th, dropped another shot coming in and tied for second behind Lucas Glover.
“That bogey on 15 hurt,” Mickelson said at Quail Hollow. “But it’s great I have another chance to go there and try and win.”
His other trips to the New York area are similarly up and down.
He opened the 1997 PGA at Winged Foot with back-to-back 69s and was two shots out of the lead before finishing the weekend 73-75 and tied for 29th. The ’06 U.S. Open on the same course was perhaps the most demoralizing of his six runner-up finishes.
He had a one-shot lead playing the last hole before hitting his driver far to the left and then, when he tried to reach the green with a 3-iron, he clipped a tree. His third shot was in the bunker, his fourth rolled through the green onto the collar of the rough. His fifth, for a playoff, missed, leaving him with a double bogey.
“I am such an idiot,” he said then.
He won his only PGA at Baltusrol in 2005, getting up-and-down with a chip from 50 feet for birdie on the par-5 18th to win by one stroke. Back in New Jersey in 2016, he tied for 33rd and was never a factor.
And then there is Shinnecock Hills.
He finished four shots back and in a tie for fourth there at the 1995 U.S. Open. In the ’04 Open at Shinnecock, he had the crowd behind him and was on the verge of winning when he landed in the bunker on No. 17, three-putted for double bogey and lost by two shots to Retief Goosen.
But it was Mickelson’s last trip to Long Island that turned into a fiasco when he intentionally struck a ball on Shinnecock’s 13th green while it was still rolling. He apologized — somewhat disingenuously — for the violation of golf etiquette, and he explained that he decided to take the two-stroke penalty rather than go back and forth on the slick and mounded green.
The criticism of the USGA’s course setup may have been what he was thinking about when he said at Quail Hollow: “Bethpage is a big ballpark, it’s long, but the greens are fair.”
“When you get on the greens, you aren’t having to . to play defense because it’s going to run 10 feet by if you hit it too much,” he said. “There is great reward if you hit great shots.”