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Phil Mickelson the peoples champion

Never having previously been to a golf tournament, the eight-year-old boy was startled to be given a ball by Phil Mickelson after five minutes of watching the action at Loch Lomond's par-three eighth hole.

It was the first hole he visited with his father at the 2003 Scottish Open and Mickelson, who has made a habit of playing in the European Tour event as part of his British Open build-up, tossed the ball the boy's way as he walked off the green.

The young fan had never heard of the American but nine months later he was told by his father that the left-handed Mickelson, after a 14-year wait, had finally made his major breakthrough by winning the 2004 U.S. Masters.

That golf ball, which perhaps surprisingly had not been lost or thrown away and had long held pride of place in the boy's bedroom, now enjoyed an even loftier status.

A further 16 months on, Mickelson sealed his second career major with a one-shot victory in the 87th U.S. PGA Championship at Baltusrol. The boy's golf ball could now claim to be a serious collector's item.

More significantly, though, this story underlines the rapport which Mickelson enjoys with golf fans in general, whether or not they recognise him as one of the greatest players in the game's history.

World number three Mickelson has won 27 PGA Tour titles since capturing his first as an amateur at the 1991 Northern Telecom Open and, of modern-day players, he is unquestionably the most popular with the fans.

Young or old, the ever-smiling Mickelson loves them all. He relishes the high-fives and the congenial hand-slapping with the spectators as he moves past the galleries on his journey from green to tee.

He loves the calls of "Go Phil" that erupt whenever he mounts a charge and there has been no louder noise at a major in recent years than the cheers for Mickelson at the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage and the 2004 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills.

It works both ways, though. Mickelson spends more time than anyone else signing autographs at the end of his round, a gesture that all the fans appreciate.

Mickelson, 35, would have it no other way.

"When I was growing up playing the game and when I first came out on tour, the person that I tried to emulate the most was Arnold Palmer, and I'll tell you why," he said before last year's U.S. Open.

"During the 1994 U.S. Open at Oakmont, I saw him come out of the volunteer tent after spending an hour and a half signing autographs.

"People were thanking him profusely and his comment to them was: 'You guys spent hours on end helping out with this event, helping it run smoothly and yet you don't have a chance to go out and see any golf at all. I wanted to come here and let you know how much we appreciate it'.

"He spent an hour and a half signing autographs for roughly 1,000 people.

"I thought that was what professional golf should be, the way professionals should handle themselves, the way he treated people with respect and was always thoughtful towards others.

"So I've used him as a role model. I do my best. I'm not able to do it always but I do my best to show the same respect that he does and emulate what he has done."

Mickelson has certainly made a success of following Palmer's lead and his generous actions with the golfing public have earned him unrestrained support at the majors that no other player today can match.

"I thought one of the coollest experiences that I've had without winning was the 2002 Open at Bethpage where I made a very good run on Sunday to close the gap and almost catch Tiger (Woods)," he recalled of his second-place finish.

"The response was fun and very flattering and exciting, and I think everybody really enjoyed playing there. The people in New York gave me one of the most amazing experiences that I've had in the game."

Last week's U.S. PGA Championship at Baltusrol was little different and Mickelson made sure he thanked the galleries twice, during his acceptance speech after receiving the prized Wannamaker Trophy and also at the post-tournament news conference.

"I really enjoyed myself the whole week and the people here in New Jersey just treated me and my wife amazing," he said on Monday after sealing his second major with a birdie at the final hole.

"We just really are appreciative. I'm very, very grateful to have been able to pull off the victory."

Phil Mickelson is now a twice major winner. For much longer, though, he has been the people's champion.


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