PITTSFORD, N.Y. (AP) — New York’s love affair with Phil Mickelson still appears to run deep. No matter the part of the state. No matter what tour he calls home.
A year after the six-time major champion left the PGA Tour to become the de facto face of the Saudi-backed LIV Golf league — a move that kickstarted multiple lawsuits and a sometimes bitter war of words among the sport’s biggest stars — Mickelson strolled around Oak Hill ahead of this week’s PGA Championship as if nothing from his surprising triumph at Kiawah in 2021 has changed other than than perhaps his seemingly ever-shrinking waistline.
Wearing a hooded burgundy sweatshirt and his trademark aviator sunglasses, Mickelson made a leisurely tour of the front nine with fellow LIV competitors and PGA Tour defectors Dustin Johnson, Harold Varner III and Talor Gooch ahead of Thursday’s opening round.
This is the state that serenaded him with “Happy Birthday” during the final round of the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage Black as he tried to chase down Tiger Woods for his first major; celebrated when he won his first PGA title at Baltusrol in 2005 — northern New Jersey essentially counts right? — and groaned when he double-bogeyed the 18th at Winged Foot to cost himself the 2006 U.S. Open.
The gallery drifted three-to-four deep around the tee boxes and greens, with various iterations of “Phil” and “Go Phil!” following Mickelson as he tried to get a gauge on a slightly revamped East Course that he’s come to know pretty well over the last three decades.
There were hits and misses. An approach shot from the middle of the fairway on the par-4 second hole caromed into a greenside bunker. Minutes later he feathered his tee shot on the treacherous 230-yard par-3 third hole to 10 feet, only to stare in surprise when a pair of practice putts slid low and right of the cup.
At every turn, however, there were throngs of support as the two state troopers tasked with following the foursome did their best to duck out of the frame as fans pulled out their phones to capture Mickelson’s every move.
It was a scene reminiscent of his stunning performance in South Carolina two years ago, when he fended off Brooks Koepka and Louis Oosthuizen to become the first 50-something to capture one of golf’s four majors.
Mickelson bailed on a chance to defend his PGA title last year at Southern Hills, part of the initial fallout of comments in which he said he was fine aligning with LIV Golf in an effort to put pressure on the PGA Tour.
Three weeks later, he teed it up with LIV outside London.
Now he’s seemingly entrenched on the upstart tour while calling out entities like the PGA Tour, the PGA of America and the USGA for practices he believes could exclude LIV players from opportunities to compete in majors like the PGA and the U.S. Open.
Remove the rhetoric, however, and Mickelson can still bring it. He put together a stunning final round 7-under 65 at Augusta National to charge up the leaderboard and tie for second behind Jon Rahm at the Masters.
The noise around the LIV/PGA Tour rift seems to have calmed a bit in western New York. Rahm, the world’s No. 1-ranked player, said he hoped to play a practice round with Mickelson at some point. It didn’t work out this week.
Maybe the nearly three-hour trip around the front nine with Johnson, Varner and Gooch was Mickelson’s way of trying to give some of his LIV colleagues some pointers on a course he knows well.
Mickelson went 3-0 in his Ryder Cup debut in 1995, shot a 4-under 66 to share the first round lead at the 2003 PGA before fading to a tie for 23rd. He never really threatened in 2013, undone by a 78 on Saturday that had him finishing up his final round long before eventual champion Jason Dufner teed off.
Dufner isn’t playing at Oak Hill this weekend. Mickelson, however, remains a fixture. Popular too. By the end of his round he’d shed his hoodie for one of his signature black polos and spent several minutes signing autographs or posing for selfies.
The calls of “Phil!” persisted as he slowly made his way toward the parking lot, urging those he missed to try to grab him later in the week.
Minutes later, Mickelson did a little bit of stretching then hopped into the massive SUV idling in his reserved parking space before zooming away, eyes fixated on the road ahead, not the road behind.
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