The love affair between Phil Mickelson and the New York area seems to know no bounds.
Mickelson returns to Bethpage Black this week for the PGA Championship, the site of two heartbreaking runner-up finishes in the U.S. Opens of 2002 and 2009 that were soundtracked by the boisterous fans supporting him at every turn. And the cheers were adamant again when Mickelson played nine holes of practice on Wednesday afternoon before he begins Thursday’s opening round at 1:38 p.m. off the first tee with Rory McIlroy and Jason Day.
“It’s the best playing here, it really is,” said Mickelson, who also finished runner-up in the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot in Mamaroneck, with his lone area victory coming at the 2005 PGA Championship at Baltusrol in Springfield, N.J.
“I would love nothing more than to have a victory here and be able to feed off the energy that the people here have provided me over the years,” he said, “and try to reward them with the victory.”
Mickelson has had a bit of an inconsistent stretch coming in, having missed the cut in his most recent tournament, in Charlotte, N.C., two weeks ago. It was his third missed cut in his previous five events, which included a middling tie for 18th at the Masters.
The 48-year-old lefty came up to the New York area last week and played Bethpage a couple of times on a scouting mission, getting himself comfortable with the monstrous golf course so he could spend the early part of this week just focusing on his game.
“I didn’t have to go out and learn the course,” Mickelson said. “I could just worry about [getting] my own game down — get my shots, my shot-making, chipping, touch [and] putting down. So I’m only worried about my game this week and building my game plan.”
Bethpage is still the long, brutal test that it was when Mickelson was serenaded with “Happy Birthday” back in 2002, the turning point of his popularity here as he finished three shots behind Tiger Woods. And it’s still the same rabid fan base that was here in 2009, when they cheered for Mickelson as his wife, Amy, was preparing for breast cancer treatments and he finished two shots behind Lucas Glover.
“It’s really not too different because we’ve had the Opens with rain,” Mickelson said. “So it never gets too carnival-y when you have rain. This week, the PGA really knows how to do a great job and they’ve got a wonderful tee-to-green golf course that allows them to really set up a wonderful, fair test.”
Because of the thick rough, Mickelson also knows there is going to be a premium on accuracy off the tee. That’s not exactly his strong suit, as he ranked 212 (third-to-last) on the PGA Tour, hitting just 50.11 percent of the fairways.
“I’ll have to drive the ball my best,” Mickelson said. “I can make some pars out of the rough, but you’re not going to win tournaments laying up.”