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Why Others Choose to Root for Phil Mickelson

I really like the way this writer penned his thoughts on the recent story that Amy Mickelson, Phil Mickelson's wife was diagnosed as having breast cancer. I was never a Phil fan until today when I read this. Wow! I think my eyes are sweating.

Why we root for Phil Mickelson

by Zack Faigen,

Updated: May 21, 2009, 11:05 AM EST

Two images endure from the 1999 U.S. Open: Payne Stewart thrusting his fist after making a 15-foot par putt to win the tournament on the 72nd hole, a moment made all the more memorable by Stewart's sudden death four months later; and Stewart, seconds after the winning putt, embracing Phil Mickelson, the man whose golfing destiny he had just interrupted, with the words, "Good luck with the baby. There's nothing like being a father."

This scene with Payne Stewart set the stage for our long fascination with Phil Mickelson and his family.

After the round, Mickelson hopped on a plane and went directly home to Phoenix, where the following day his wife Amy gave birth to the couple's first child, a daughter named Amanda.

Next month marks the 10-year anniversary of that Open at Pinehurst No. 2. In the intervening decade, we have come to know the Mickelsons with a seeming closeness we are rarely allowed with professional athletes and their families. We've been victims in their heartbreak and partners in their triumph. That's why Wednesday's revelation that Amy Mickelson has breast cancer — and that Phil will be taking an indefinite leave from golf while they fight the disease — has shaken so many people.

America's love for Phil Mickelson was forever cemented in that '99 Open. Mickelson had already become a fan favorite, a position he held despite his grip on the nameplate reading "best player never to win a major." But '99 was different. Amy's pregnancy and the impending birth had become one of the dominant storylines of the week. What would happen if Amy went into labor during the tournament?

"I was totally in tears," she later told The Associated Press. "The worst thing that could happen was I have the baby Saturday night and he's leading the U.S. Open."

But Phil had been clear from the beginning. If she went into labor, he would leave the tournament. How well he was playing mattered none.

"It's not worth the tournament," Mickelson maintained after a first-round 67 had him tied for the lead. "As important as the U.S. Open is to me and every other player in the field, this is the birth of my first child."

The couple developed a system whereby Amy would page Phil on a vibrating beeper his caddie had in the bag. If she typed in the secret code, it meant the baby was coming.

"He made me swear left and right, up and down, that I would beep him," Amy would later say.

She didn't. Amy began having contractions Saturday night, but decided against alerting her husband. Instead, she took medication to slow the labor process, and the contractions eventually stopped. Amanda waited until Monday to emerge.

Since that week in North Carolina, Mickelson's family has remained in the foreground of the moments that have defined his career.

In 2004, when Mickelson finally ceded his long-held label with a thrilling victory at the Masters, he walked off the 18th green, picked up Amanda and said, "Daddy won! Can you believe it?"

Two years later, Mickelson appeared primed to exorcise his U.S. Open demons and finally win his nation's championship. Needing only par on the last hole to claim victory, Mickelson inexplicably double-bogeyed the hole, handing the tournament to Geoff Ogilvy. When he emerged from the scorer's area — minutes later, though it seemed much longer — Amy had her arm draped around Phil's shoulders, his eyes distinctly red and watery.

"I still am in shock that I did that," he said. "I just can't believe that I did that. I am such an idiot."

There he was, in his most painful professional moment: honest, genuine, real. Can you imagine Tiger Woods saying something like that?

The reality is, for all of Woods' success and popularity, he has never let us into his world the way the Mickelsons have. You get the sense that Tiger is a fun guy to be around, and you even get glimpses of it when he plays with Peyton Manning in a pro-am or shares laughs with Ken Griffey Jr. at batting practice. But it feels as though Woods never fully lets down his guard. He projects a carefully polished version of Tiger Woods, a version that must always be conscious of the Tiger Woods brand. Not to say that's a bad thing. It's just that becoming the richest and most recognizable athlete on the planet isn't an accident.

In Tiger we see perfection. In Mickelson we see ourselves — or, at least in some ways, what we hope to be.

Ten years ago, Mickelson made himself a model of American values when he put his wife and child ahead of the U.S. Open, to many the most sought-after championship in golf. Now Mickelson is once again making that choice. His status for June's U.S. Open, a title he has still never won, remains in doubt. Here's to hoping for Amy's full and speedy recovery, and that Phil can get back to the never-a-dull-moment pursuit of the several majors he needs to go from great player to one of golf's all-time greats.

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