The better Phil Mickelson plays at the Wells Fargo Championship on Saturday, the more his entourage grows. If you want a front-row seat, you have to claim it long before Mickelson arrives. When he reaches the 18th green it looks as if he’s attracted an army.
To label it an army, however, is disrespectful. Arnold Palmer had the army, and he earned every member. He was as gracious with his fans as NASCAR’s Richard Petty is with his.
Palmer played his final U.S. Open on his turf, at Pennsylvania’s Oakmont Country Club, in 1994. The heat was oppressive, and Palmer, then 64, was exhausted. Fans gave him a huge, emotional ovation as he finished. He walked to the press tent, where writers cried. A wet towel around his neck, Palmer broke down.
Spent emotionally and physically, Palmer walked to the fans that comprised his army and began to sign autographs. Mickelson, who turned 24 during the tournament, noticed.
Mickelson walked to the driving range to hit but, because of the nasty heat, didn’t stay as long as he planned. When he returned he saw Palmer, still with fans, still signing, and thought: If I get the chance, that’s what I’ll do.
Tiger Woods is perceived to be as warm as a golf marshal.
When Mickelson plays, it’s as if he reaches out and says, “Join me.”
His game is more accessible than most stars’ because he hits more bad shots than most stars. He hits more good shots, too. On Saturday, he went through a stretch in which he made four birdies, one eagle and one more birdie. That’s 6 holes, 7 under par.
Fans don’t know what he’ll do. But it probably won’t bore them.
Mickelson shot a 75 Friday. On Saturday he shot a 63, one shot off the tournament record set by Rory McIlroy in 2010 and tied Friday by Brendon de Jonge.
Mickelson reacts. He’ll grimace after a bad shot and rejoice after a good one, and fans grimace and rejoice with him. Fans greet him with waves of applause on 13 and he twice he brings his left hand to his cap, apparently tries to suppress a smile, and fails.
Mickelson is 43, and he doesn’t have a victory, or a top 10 finish, in nine tournaments this season. Fans worry about his age and his game and, therefore, are especially thrilled with his work Saturday.
On 14, his drive skips past the ball of de Jonge, his playing partner. The ball lands in front of a group of fans. One asks, “Whose ball is that?”
“Phil’s,” another says.
The golfers are walking off the tee, almost 300 yards away. Fans cheer anyway. They cheer Phil’s ball.
Fans know that the final three holes are Mickelson’s worst. Going into Saturday, he was a collective 33-over par on 16, 17 and 18. He had bogeyed each of the holes once this week.
Eager to see him break the course record, fans do the math aloud. OK, he needs a birdie and an eagle on 14 and 15 if he’s going to do it.
Mickelson birdies 15 and pars 16, 17 and 18.
When his final putt rolls in, fans cheer and whoop and clap for 24 seconds.
After he signs his scorecard, he meets the media. Had he holed makeable putts, Mickelson could have finished with a 60. Somebody asks if he’ll think about the opportunities he missed.
“Not really,” Mickelson says. “It’s easy to do that when you have a good day, to look back on the few that didn’t go in. But there were so many that did, and that is where I’m going to focus.”
This was a day not to think about what could have been, but about what was. Mickelson says he was part of a twosome, in perfect weather, playing well on a course he loves.
“It was a really good day,” he says.
As Mickelson talks, fans behind the ropes call to him. When the interviews end, he walks to them and begins to sign autographs.
He’s still signing when the last of the media walk away.
Sorensen: 704-358-5119; email@example.com; Twitter: @tomsorensen