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At the U.S. Open, Phil Mickelson has been the center of a jubilant universe

Phil Mickelson, greeting fans Friday, has been a crowd favorite all week at Bethpage Black.

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Phil Mickelson, greeting fans Friday, has been a crowd favorite all week at Bethpage Black.

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. — The putt started somewhere in Queens, seemingly too far away for overnight delivery. It rolled down the Grand Central Parkway, and it started to veer to the right somewhere around Little Neck. It sailed down the Meadowbrook, onto the course and past the galleries at the 18th green.

Finally, the ball fell into the cup, and once again, the world around Phil Mickelson went mad.

The noise was boisterous and sharp, and it sounded something like love. The New Yorkers were on their feet once more, screaming Mickelson's name again and again, shouting their approval for their newly adopted son.

Mickelson pumped his fist several times, and the volume rose again. He could have been a rock star. He could have been a Giants quarterback. He could have been a Jeter, and the sound would not have been greater.

As he has all week, Mickelson looked into the stands, and a smile creased his face, and he raised his left thumb once more. And still, the noise continued.

He has been cheered many times in many places, but never has it sounded quite as meaningful, quite as heartfelt, as this. This time, they were not simply cheering for his golf. They were cheering for hope, and they were cheering for humanity. They were cheering for his day and for the days still to come. They were cheering for his chances and for those of his wife, Amy, back home in California.

And they were cheering for the 35- to 40-foot birdie putt on the 18th green and for the realization that after all he has been through, Mickelson still has a chance to win the U.S. Open.

Can you measure how big a story it would be if Mickelson, weeks after learning of Amy's breast cancer, could somehow manage to pull out a victory? For all of his victories, for all of the money he has made, it would be Mickelson's signature moment. And maybe golf's.

Oh, he has some work to do. Mickelson was tied for third with 16 holes to play, and he trailed co-leaders Ricky Barnes and Lucas Glover by five strokes. As Sunday's play was suspended, however, Barnes had the look of a player ready to fall to earth. After one bogey in his first 42 holes, he had six in his final 13.

In other words, 64 or 65 could put the trophy in Mickelson's hands.

Is it possible? Given the support, given the momentum, given the karma, you bet it is.

"I feel like if I can get a hot round going, I can make up the difference," Mickelson said at the completion of his third round. "You just never know what's going to happen in this event, and I think that if someone can get hot, you just never know what's going to happen."

The question of whether Mickelson has a legit shot, of course, raises another question. What about Tiger Woods, who was seven back with 11 holes to play? Woods, too, can get back into the tournament if Barnes and Glover struggle.

Still, it feels more like a Mickelson moment, even considering his up-and-down round. He had seven birdies, but he also had four bogeys and a double bogey.

To the crowd around him, it did not matter. With every hole, they called his name. They slapped his palm. They gave him advice. At times, they kept him amused.

"I heard some great, great lines," Mickelson said. "The best ones I can't repeat. They keep us laughing."

It has been such a strange week for Mickelson. After his tie for 59th on June 14 in Memphis, there were those who wondered if all of the emotion surrounding his wife's illness would lessen his focus. It has not — not even in those empty moments that come with the constant rain delays.

It is interesting to see a man redefine himself. Once, Mickelson was known as the man who couldn't hold a lead, as the player who couldn't win a major, as the golfer who wasn't quite Tiger. Now, he is the man who has used golf to shield him from his worries.

For now, it is Mickelson who has the better chance of a new title and a new legacy. This won't be remembered as a great U.S. Open, but if Mickelson wins the title, it will be remembered as one of golf's great stories. Nothing wrong with that, either.

"I've been there, and I know what can happen in the final round when you start trying to protect the lead," Mickelson said. "I also have been there where I'm trying to make up the difference and trying to mount a charge."

His crowd will be waiting. Win this, and he will be one of them forever.

At the U.S. Open, Phil Mickelson has been the center of a jubilant universe 06/21/09 [Last modified: Sunday, June 21, 2009 10:48pm]
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