BILL DWYRE

Phil Mickelson is PGA Tour's Mr. Popularity for a reason

Why? Well, there are plenty of factors that make the 'big ol' gummy bear' a cuddly choice of golf fans, especially in Southern California.

PGA Tournament

It was high noon Friday and the faithful were everywhere, waiting for Phil Mickelson to pull the trigger on his second round in the Northern Trust Open.

About 300 yards down the fairway, where his opening tee shot would land, they were three deep behind the ropes. Behind and above the tee, hanging over the railings of historic Riviera clubhouse, were perhaps another 1,000.

"That's so cool," Mickelson would say later. "They've got pictures on the walls inside of that very same scene, with Hogan and Snead teeing off. It's such an honor."

To the galleries, he wasn't just the man in black. He was their man in black.

There are many other great players on the PGA Tour, most of them with fine personalities. But Mickelson would win any popularity contest here, hands down.

But why? Is it obvious? Is it merely the 41 tour events he's won, including four majors? Is it that he has been around long enough to win $70 million playing golf? Is it that he has been the only player on each of the last eight U.S. Ryder Cup teams; also all eight Presidents Cup teams? Does sports nationalism beget rabid popularity?

Is it that he religiously signs autographs, never misses thanking a scorecard carrier or shaking the hand of a military person, always seems to find the most shy 10-year-old in the crowd and gives him or her a golf ball?

Or is it that, as one of his friends says, "He's just a big old gummy bear."

Mickelson seldom is asked about it because observation shows the obvious. So when he is asked about his popularity, he struggles.

"I don't have a great answer for you," he says. He pauses and adds, "I guess I just love golf so much that people see that. I'm just guessing."

Maybe it's because he can be so painfully human. He would have a fifth major title had he not tried to hit a shot over a sponsor's tent at Winged Foot in the 2006 U.S. Open. Afterward, he labeled himself "an idiot." Every duffer who has ever tried a foolish shot related. A few weeks ago, when he talked about being overtaxed and came off like a spoiled rich kid, he quickly reversed himself and doused the flames of criticism by saying, in essence, he had done another Winged Foot.

People close to him say he is how he was brought up. Mickelson somewhat confirms that after his round.

"When I was a kid," he says, "my parents made sure I knew the value of things. I was never given a golf club or golf balls. I paid for them by collecting balls on a driving range — Navajo Canyon course; now it's Mission Trails. When I got on Tour and saw the range balls we used, it amazed me because they were better than the balls I used to play with."

His father, Phil, a pilot once in the Blue Angels program and a good golfer, let him tag along and play at a young age. One day, little Phil got mad and threw his club. Dad said that, as long as he wasn't having fun, he could carry the golf bags. A couple holes later, little Phil was tired of carrying bags and said he wanted to have fun again. Big Phil said OK, and little Phil has never thrown another golf club, nor stopped having fun.

He plays golf left-handed because he mirrored every swing made by his right-handed dad. When he isn't playing golf, Mickelson is a right-hander.

When he got to be 7 or 8, his parents let him chip at a backyard hole 40 yards away. A few years later, needing a bigger challenge, he just chipped the ball to the pin from the front yard. Over the house. Thus, the birth of the flop shot.

He is involved in several charities. One, called Start Smart, is run by his foundation, which he funds and for which he does not solicit donations. Start Smart will be in its seventh year late this summer. It is basically a back-to-school shopping trip for 1,500 underprivileged children in the San Diego area, as chosen by school districts. It was publicized the first few years, and now it isn't because Mickelson doesn't want it to be.

On Start Smart day, he and wife Amy, and their children, act as clerks for the day and help select the clothing for the children. One of the families served at a Start Smart day later told a teacher that it had been a life-changing day. They had three children and only one pair of shoes, so they had been rotating days each went to school.

Maybe those stories filter down to the fans.

Or maybe, it is just the golf.

On that first hole, with the gallery swarming around him, he hit an eight-iron that needed to roll just another foot for a double eagle. The fans got what they wanted. Their hero as superman.

Then, on the tricky No. 10, he hit a bad drive, a worse chip and a bladed third shot. He took a double-bogey six. That, too, has become, for his fans, part of the continuum of Phil. Their hero as a 25-handicapper at Rancho Park.

When he was done, he had been spectacular and scary. Never boring. His 67 put him just five shots off the lead and assured the galleries of at least another day of Phil thrills.

When he was done, he made eye contact with the fans, signed autographs, found a little kid to give a ball to and never stopped smiling.

If this is all an act, Mickelson's next career will be on Broadway.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com
CHICAGO

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