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Phil Mickelson the New Yorkers favourite

They're tough as nails, they like grit more than polish and they pull for players who grind it out and can take whatever the back pages of the tabloids throw at them.

He's marshmallow soft, all smiles and shrugs, and lives a life of leisure with his picture-perfect family on the Left Coast.

New Yorkers and Phil Mickelson: Common sense says they shouldn't love each other, but for some reason, they do. And never more so than when the U.S. Open, which happens to coincide each year with Mickelson's birthday, comes back to the Big Apple.

They sang "Happy Birthday" to him at Bethpage. They chanted his name at Shinnecock. This year, the course is Winged Foot, just a quick train ride from Manhattan. The lovefest begins Thursday.

How to explain this strange dichotomy -- the warm-and-fuzzy teddy bear being embraced in the birthplace of the Bronx Cheer? There are, it seems, as many theories as there are FOPs -- Fans of Phil.

"He's an average guy," said John Mulvaney of Washington Township, N.J., who spent some time Tuesday watching Phil's nine holes of practice. "He gambles. He hangs out. He's a good guy, a cool guy. For a while there, he always choked. He's just a good guy to root for."

Some of his biggest chok... um, disappointments came in two U.S. Opens held outside the city. Who can forget the scene at Bethpage in 2002 when Phil, schvitzing in the hot, humid weather and looking particularly doughy and out of shape, missed an excruciating 8-footer on 16 to end his run at Tiger Woods?

He was the people's choice that day, even though he finished second for the second time at the U.S. Open and fell to 0-for-40 in the majors.

"I have never seen a crowd behind a player the way they were today with Phil," Mickelson's playing partner, Jeff Maggert, said that day.

Mickelson promised to get in better shape after that one, acknowledging that fitness could have played a factor in his inability to break through under brutal conditions. Since then, he has firmed things up a bit and, more importantly, figured out a way to win in the biggest tournaments.

But still not at the U.S. Open.

So, it wasn't surprising that when he charged into the lead, only to come in an excruciating second to Retief Goosen at Shinnecock in 2004, he was every bit the people's choice.

"It's very flattering," he said that day, after losing the tournament with a three-putt from 5 feet on the 17th hole. "I don't know what to say. People have been terrific to me and my family."

Another theory for why the act plays so well in and around Manhattan: He is not Tiger Woods.

"He responds to questions the way he feels," said Gavin Blainey, a salesman at a golf shop in midtown Manhattan. "I think people here pick up on the fact that Phil comes off as real. With Tiger, it seems more robotic. It's like the answers he gives today are the same as the ones he gave five years ago."

This week, though, it is Tiger who comes to Winged Foot as the more sympathetic of the two characters. How often can that be said?

During an engaging, 40-minute news conference Tuesday, it was Woods who let the people in, talking about the effect of the nine-week layoff necessitated by the recent death of his father, Earl, and how difficult it has been to return to his sport.

"I had no desire to play the game of golf," Woods conceded.

Mickelson, meanwhile, spent most of his news conference, held right after Woods left the room, discussing which driver -- or drivers -- he would put in his bag. He's the winner of two straight majors, no longer quite as sad-sack as he used to be.

Mickelson has never been able to really explain his peculiar bond with New Yorkers. One thing he does know -- no matter how chubby he looked or how badly he wilted, he can't remember being razzed at a major in New York.

"A lot of times when you're playing, you don't hear it," he said. "Even though they might be yelling it, you don't hear it because your mind might be somewhere else. I think it's important, whether it's positive feedback or negative feedback, you have to let it go in one ear and out the other and enjoy the moment and enjoy the atmosphere of it."

When Mickelson is on the course in New York, the atmosphere is always electric, even if it doesn't quite make sense.

This is, after all, a city that loved Joe Namath for his glitz and his guarantee, Willis Reed for hobbling out there on one leg, Derek Jeter for always coming through in the clutch and leading the Yankees back to greatness.

And then, there's Phil.

"He's always been a good guy, he always does the right thing, he does a lot of charity work, he's always smiling," said Gary Lishnoff of Norwalk, Conn. "He's got the great-looking family. People like that no matter where they come from. And all those years without winning a major helped, too."

June 14, 2006


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