June 12, 2009

Unlikely Homecoming

A son of California, Phil Mickelson has been embraced by New Yorkers as one of their own. And as Tim Rosaforte reports, it all started seven years ago at Bethpage Black

Wherever Phil was at the 2002 U.S. Open he was surrounded by crowds. 2009 is unlikely to be any different.

Wherever Phil was at the 2002 U.S. Open he was surrounded by crowds. 2009 is unlikely to be any different.

A native New Yorker through and through, Skip Schumeyer is the hole captain for the 17th hole of this year's U.S. Open on the Black course at Bethpage State Park, and he has next week's welcome already planned.

"I've already got pink ribbons for everybody's hats," he says.

Schumeyer, 55, is the retired chief of the Farmingdale (N.Y.) Fire Department. He grew up caddieing at Bethpage, lost his sister to breast cancer, and speaks for most of Metropolitan New York in his love for Phil Mickelson.

In 2002, it was the memory of 9/11 that permeated the atmosphere of what will forever be known as The People' Open. In 2009, it will be the wife of the people's choice that stirs the emotions.

As Amy Mickelson battles cancer, Schumeyer hopes that Phil is lifted up by the support that took root at Bethpage. It was on his hole seven years ago where a charging Mickelson made a birdie putt on Saturday that triggered the loudest roar caddie Jim "Bones" Mackay had ever heard.

The 17th is what Schumeyer calls "the People's Hole." Up on a hill, surrounded by grandstands, it was here that they serenaded Mickelson with "Happy Birthday," even though Tiger Woods was pulling away to win his second Open and his second straight major.

But it was clear that day that as much respect as Woods earned, it was Mickelson they were rooting for. "I absolutely love him," Schumeyer says. "He's one of the guys I look for every week to see where he is on the leader board. Why the attraction, I don't know. It just seems like he relates to everybody."

Schumeyer was standing alongside Mickelson during his last competitive visit to New York. He was right there along the gallery stakes to the left of the 18th fairway at Winged Foot, watching Mickelson waggle a 3-iron in his hands, trying to figure an opening in the tree branches that would produce a miracle escape. Coming on the heels of a PGA Championship victory at Baltusrol in August 2005, and the Masters in the spring of 2006, a par would have produced his third-straight major championship.

"I was standing right there when he was trying to hit it over that tree," Schumeyer says. "I'm like, 'Take your lumps, punch out,' but no, he's going to be stubborn and try to hit that ball over the tree. I was so hoping for him."

If Winged Foot broke the hearts of Mickelson's New York faithful, Bethpage was where he first won them over, and as Schumeyer said, it was an attraction that was hard to define. Mickelson was left coast, not the tough blue-collar persona that embodied the Long Island crowd. But as Schumeyer said, he connected with everybody, and it started the week before, during a Buick Classic pro-am at Westchester CC, where Mickelson was paired with former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and New York Yankees manager Joe Torre. These were the two figures that so represented the city's resolve during the American League Championship Series the previous October.

Nine months after 9/11, Giuliani elected not to play the Buick Pro-Am, but walked every hole outside the ropes while his son, Andrew filled in. Mackay remembers the scene of the mayor hugging people, listening to them tell their stories of the previous September, "was one of the most impressive things I've ever witnessed in my life." Mickelson spent much of his time talking with Torre, getting advice on the 18th green about the amazing rapport the manager had with the press. At the time, Phil was going into Bethpage 0-for-39 in majors.

By the time they hit Bethpage a week later, Mickelson had a better appreciation not only for the city, but its people. While Tiger wore his game face, Phil looked them in the eye, signed the autographs, shot the bull with them, and became an adopted son. When he came off the 14th green on Sunday, after making birdie, the chants started to echo from the 15th tee. It sounded like Derek Jeter was up at bat in the Bronx, but instead of "Let's Go Yank-ees!" they were yelling, "Let's Go Mick-el-Son," kicking the grandstands until they shook.

"Tiger was getting tougher to catch but the fans weren't giving up and neither was Phil," recalls Mackay. "There's a long walk between that green and tee, maybe 100 yards and all you could hear was, 'Let's Go Mick-el-son.' ''

Woods ultimately pulled away for a three-stroke victory, but Mickelson had won the audience. Some of the more fanatical were yelling, "Mickelson for President!" It was that weekend, where he shot 67-70 to make it a game, that Phil Mickelson's connection with the crowd was palpable. "Man, I've never seen a crowd behind a player more than that in a round of golf," said playing partner Jeff Maggert. "It was amazing."

Afterward, Mickelson said all the right things, drawing on what Torre had told him the weekend before, and what he saw in Giuliani. "I certainly felt the support, and I felt the electricity and the atmosphere," he said that night. "It was an incredible feeling. There's a mutual respect. We love this town. We love the spirit of this town and we love the people of this town. They made this an incredible Open Championship for every player, but we certainly felt it in particular. I thought it was awesome to have that support from the people."

There was a carry-over to Shinnecock two summers later. One of the club's members, Augie Hoerrner, was told by a young caddie, that Mickelson was making it a habit to come in early and play the major venues. Hoerrner worked on Wall Street with John Bannon, a well-connected, avid golfer who knew PGA Tour rules official Mark Russell. It was Russell who got word to Mickelson that to play Shinnecock, he needed to play with a member, and Hoerrner was a good guy.

Mickelson arrived with Pelz and his swing coach at the time, Rick Smith. They stayed at the Hampton Maid and met for breakfast, where Mickelson devoured his eggs and pancakes, chasing them down with Diet Cokes. Hoerrner offered to be his concierge, offering to show him the restaurants, but Mickelson asked for the closest gym, so he could work out. After a 90-minute workout, they met for 36 holes of golf.

The following day, the club was hosting its annual Charlie Thom tournament, named after the club's pro for 55 years. Mickelson worked with Pelz on his short game and walked the course with two wedges after the tournament concluded. On Sunday, a northeaster blew in, and Mickelson insisted they play a game, with Hoerrner getting his strokes.

Two years later, when they were at Winged Foot for the Open, Mickelson spotted Hoerrner's daughter in the crowd, and asked, "How's your father?" She had only walked a couple holes during the short game practice on that Saturday evening at Shinnecock, but it was a case of Mickelson connecting and remembering.

Although the demographic was different in the Hamptons, the feeling was the same. But so was the disappointment. Mickelson took a one-stroke lead with a birdie at the 16th hole on Sunday. The gallery started chanting as Mickelson approached the 17th green, "Gimme a 'P', gimme an 'H', gimme an 'I', gimme an 'L'. What's that spell?"

Mickelson tipped his visor, but three-putted the 71st hole for a double bogey. Horrner left the green, "devastated," while Mickelson admitted after finishing second in the Open for a third time, "I thought this was going to be the day." After all the news conferences, Mickelson tried to make it to his car, but an audience awaited and Phil signed until it was dark. "I'm pretty sure it was pitch black out there," says Mackay.

The following August was the payoff to all the heartache and ambassadorship. A week before the PGA Championship, Mickelson arrived with Mackay and short game coach Dave Pelz to break down the Lower Course. The club's head pro, Doug Steffen, greeted them but stayed out of the way until Mickelson asked to recommend a place to eat. Steffen told them Joe's Pizzeria, about ½ mile from the club. The advice on the food was so good that Phil and Bones returned to Baltursol, to pick Steffen's brain about the golf course.

In the locker room, Steffen explained some of the local knowledge, and how everything breaks away from Baltusrol mountain. Later, he would tell Mackay that there was one exception, from behind the pin in the Sunday placement at No. 4. For some reason, Steffen reminded Mackay of that before the final round, and Mackay had the trust to tell Mickelson as he stood over an eight-footer from exactly that angle. "Tell him it breaks into the mountain," Steffen said.

Mickelson trusted the local knowledge, ate at Joe's Pizza all week, made the putt dead center, and ended up winning his second major by one stroke. He and Steffen became buddies for life, and when Mickelson returned the following year to play the Open at The Foot, he ducked over to Baltusrol to play on the Wednesday before the opening round. He has also flown in from Pittsburgh just to have dinner at Joe's, where a signed pin flag hangs proudly.

"I kind of relate to him like Arnold," Steffen says. "He makes you feel like he cares. After he won, he stuck around for hours, signing autographs, just being Phil. A lot of guys go do their own thing and then take off, but the fans mean a lot to him and the support he had here; we could not have had a better champion. It's not like he's bigger than anybody."

Steffen was home in Summit, N.J, watching on TV, feeling the same way Schumeyer did just outside the ropes at Winged Foot, when Mickelson's dream of winning a U.S. Open, and a third-straight major, came to a heart-wrenching end.

"I felt like throwing up," Steffen said.

What Mickelson's going through now makes that closing double bogey seem meaningless. Whether he can contend and make this another chapter in his storybook history with New York is secondary to the day-to-day of knowing when the tournament ends, the family will go on a vacation, and when they return, mom will have surgery.

"Bethpage," says Steffen. "Not only just because it's him as a person, but with Amy's situation, he'll have so much support over there. He's going to have everybody rooting for him."

Part of the Mickelson mystique with the New York sports fan is that he is very much a sports fan in the same mold. Most of his news conference Wednesday morning at Bethpage focused on Amy and her struggles, how the fans should lift him up this week at the U.S. Open. But just at the end, he was asked about this curious connection with New York that had Shumeyer asking, "Why the attraction, I don't know."

Mickelson thinks he does know. He said quite simply, "I love talking sports with people in New York," admitting there's no place in the world where the spectators are more knowledgeable, confessing he brushed up for those discussions about whether the Yankees can beat the Red Sox, whether Johan Santana can start winning against for the Mets, whether the Jets can replace Brett Favre with Mark Sanchez and if the Giants can replace Plaxico Burress.

"I think he appreciates them as sports fans, because they have so much love for his team and his sports," said Mackay, "Phil's the same way. He loves Chargers the same way those guys love the Giants and the Jets. Phil and folks from that part of the world are most likely to tell you who the third-string guard is on their favorite NFL team."

As Mickelson concluded before heading out to play his practice round, "I thought that knowing a little bit about those teams would be probably wise on my part."