FARMINGDALE, N.Y. -- On the 6:07 a.m. train out of Penn Station, the ones awake were planning.
“We should follow Phil until, like, 17,” said one scruffy twenty-something to a pair of friends. “Then maybe, we catch a little Tiger.”
“That’s good, let’s do that,” one said through the lid of his black iced coffee. “I’m feeling pretty fired up right now.” When he finished that, he reached under his seat and produced a round of brown paper bags wrapped tight to hide the contents of a few tallboy cans, and drank.
Outside, the sky was still dark but giving way to orange. It was early, yes, but this was the last train you could take out of New York City to catch Phil Mickelson’s 7:54 a.m. tee time on Long Island, at Bethpage Black.
It’s no secret that Bethpage loves Phil Mickelson. They loved him first for striving, back in 2002, when he went toe-to-toe with Tiger at the U.S. Open, scrambling to ditch his “best-golfer-never-to-win-a-major” moniker. They loved him for smiling, in 2009, when he charmed crowds at the U.S. Open even though his wife, Amy, was diagnosed with breast cancer a month earlier. It’s clear they love him still. That much was apparent Thursday during his opening round 68 at The Barclays.
Playing two groups before Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, Mickelson was on the undercard. His crowd was loud but half as large as the mob that trailed Woods. At points where the groups came closest, the mass would combine for a moment. And then the blob would disperse, choose sides, move on.
As Phil eyed a putt for birdie on the 16th green, McIlroy and Woods were teeing off nearby on the 15th. Rory and Tiger’s fans cheered as they walked off the tee box, but Phil’s faithful were silent. The world’s No. 1 and 3 players walked past a row of backs as Mickelson made the putt. His fans shouted, as if to answer, using every two word variation of “Yeah, Phil” in the English language. And then they moved on.
Behind the 18th green, a short, dark-haired, woman slipped a small vanity from her shorts pocket. She flicked open the mirror and made sure everything was in order. A 411-yard par-4 away, Mickelson was fist-bumping his way to the tee box like Ali on a speed bag. Everybody with a hand out was acknowledged. He would be here next, and everything needed to be in place. The woman was Joan DeVaney, of Saratoga Springs, and Phil’s biggest fan. This is not simply her opinion: In 2008, Devaney was featured with Mickelson in a Crowne Plaza hotel commercial where she earned the title. Since the 2006 Players, she’s seen Mickelson play countless tournaments.
Then, as now, she wears a yellow shirt emblazoned with “Go Phil” in black bubble letters. She pairs it with a KPMG hat with Callaway’s logo on back, and a breast cancer ribbon stitched into the side. She informs me that it is the exact hat Mickelson wears, when he wears a hat. “If he’s not on tour, I stay home,” DeVaney said, walking toward Mickelson’s drive on the first. “I’m Phil’s biggest fan. He’s just wonderful, just first class, top shelf people.”
Up ahead of DeVaney, the Macinas were settling in for their second nine in Lefty’s company. A father and his two red-haired sons, all three wore light blue shirts and white KPMG hats in the style of their golfing idol.
“I was hoping he’d acknowledge us,” said Joe, the father. “And then, pffft, it happened.” Mickelson saw them and smiled as he made for the second tee box. Then, looking at his golf ball, he soft-tossed it to Colby, Joe Macina’s 11-year-old son.
“Stuff like that – that’s pretty cool,” said Macina, who lives 15 miles away in Bay Shore. “We’ll always follow Phil for that. Even back in 2002, when he was really battling Tiger, he still did everything right. The crowd here took him in for that, and we’ll never let go.”
Mickelson birdied the hole with an 11-foot putt. Colby Macina kept his hand fast over the lump in his right pocket the whole time, keeping his trophy safe.
As the 6 a.m. drinkers were joined by the 9 a.m. drinkers, and they were joined by the noon crowd, the roars grew. Mickelson’s following of 50 swelled closer to 100. They commented on his waistline and whether he needed a haircut, like old friends talking behind each other’s backs. They shushed all whisperers when he got to the tee. The fans clapped for everyone in the group. They admired Scott Piercy for scratching out a 74 when it was clear early on that his clubs wanted at least 80 swings of exercise. And they liked Donald for the ease with which the game seems to come to him, his 68 breezing by like nothing at all.
But they loved Phil for some combination of the two: He didn’t find much trouble on Thursday, and when Mickelson did his short game saved him. But Mickelson was most compelling when he moved from grace to struggle and back. Like on six, his 15th hole, when he went from shin-high rough to a back greenside bunker to a smooth approach that saved his par. He cast a smile toward the onlookers, who couldn’t have done what he did no matter what depended on it. That’s why they came to the tournament and cheered like Long Islanders. Even then, however, the roars for Tiger behind them – which blew through the forest between the fourth and sixth holes -- was louder.
By the time Mickelson came to his home stretch, Frank Aiello had had a few beers, and he was ready to get his hat autographed. It was another KPMG hat – although this one, he said, was fitted, and therefore authentic. It was sweated yellow to a degree Mickelson’s original would never see. Aiello needed that autograph, he said, so he could take Mickelson everywhere.
A scruffy, tan man in his mid-twenties, Aiello took umbrage with Joan DeVaney’s claim on the title of Mickleson’s biggest fan. That said, he did admire her hat: “That ribbon on the side is really rare – like limited edition.” He seemed to admire everything Mickelson.
“Oh, I love him. Since I was five, when he won the 1991 Northern Telecom Open – as an amateur! It was the first event I ever watched…See that putter? I have that same putter. Short blade, white grip, I got that. Practically the same putter he used to win the 1991 Northern Telecom Open.” He stopped to take a swig or two from his $7 Heineken. “I even have a 64-degree wedge. I’ve spent hours hitting flop shots in my yard. Because that’s what Mickelson does.”
“It’s true. There are dents all over the wall,” added his girlfriend, Jessica, who seemed unthreatened by the outpouring of affection.
“I don’t know why, but I just love him,” he continued. “When I would caddy, I’d carry a picture of Phil in my back pocket –“
“—What – wait -- why?”
“Just to look at.”
Mickleson’s audience peaked around the eighth tee. They came to see him birdie seven – his fifth and final birdie of the day – and to wait for Tiger and Rory to come through.
He parred his last two holes, shook hands with Donald and Piercy, and made eye contact with as many fans as possible while they lauded him with 10 seconds of applause. Then, a cart took Mickelson away to sign his card.
Aiello was waiting by that cart. I don’t know if he got his autograph, but if he asked nicely, I imagine he did.