A Lovable Runner-Up Wins Over New York

SOUTHAMPTON-Since when do New York sports fans, who covet their neighbor’s championships, fall in love in lugs like Phil Mickelson, known until recently for his inability to win the big one? After all, isn’t New York the home of superlatives-the biggest, the tallest, the best, the most?

Could it be that the New York sports fan has a bigger and softer heart than most people realize? If so, some journalistic revisionism would seem in order.

Especially in recent years, New York sports fans have been portrayed as a collective version of George Steinbrenner, the principal owner of the New York Yankees and a man who believes he is entitled to annual championships. New York sports fans seemingly spend their non-spectating hours plotting ways to lure every athlete of note away from scrubby minor-league cities-you know, Boston, Los Angeles, Atlanta-in order that they might deliver more championships to the world’s greatest city, capital of the universe, home of champions, etc.

Enabling this attitude is the New York tabloid sports journalist, who has never met a high-caliber athlete who shouldn’t be traded immediately to a New York team. The New York tabloid sports reporter is the jock world’s version of George W. Bush’s neocons: They, too, seek global domination, by force if necessary.

And so baseball’s Yankees and, less successfully, the Mets annually purchase the services of stars from other cities in order to please fans who demand nothing less than championship machines. Similarly, football’s Giants schemed to get the services of college football’s best quarterback, Eli Manning, so that he would not waste his talent in some terrible backwater like San Diego. Hockey’s Rangers have spent a good portion of Charles Dolan’s millions in pursuit of players whose skills would be lost on the denizens of Philadelphia or, God forbid, Montreal. While these efforts have not always produced the intended results, they certainly have furthered the notion of the New York sports fan as a demanding sort, accustomed to winning, impatient with losers.

And then there is Phil Mickelson, New York’s favorite golfer and the runner-up at this year’s U.S. Open here at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club.

From the moment Mr. Mickelson ripped into his first tee shot on June 17, he was greeted with the kind of adulation New York generally reserves for, well, winners. Like Derek Jeter, or Mark Messier, or Lawrence Taylor. Or that other famous golfer, what’s his name-Woods?

The crowd that followed Mr. Mickelson from hole to hole was larger and louder than the escort provided Mr. Woods, the former front-runner. And these were hardly the sort of fly-by-night fans who might be expected to abandon their hero if he faltered midway into the championship (which he didn’t-he waited until the 71st hole of the 72-hole event). They followed him up and down hills, through fescue and brush, with the sun beating down on their necks, following him with the fervor of the pious on the trail of a prophet. And these were fans steeped in the Phil Mickelson story-as Mr. Mickelson strode up a hill leading to the perilous green at No. 11, a fan with leather for lungs yelled out, “Win it for Amy!” This reference to his wife, who almost died in childbirth last year, prompted Mr. Mickelson to display an emotion not always seen in championship golf: He laughed. Good God, he seemed to be enjoying himself! Does that other fellow-the one with all those championships-ever laugh in the midst of championship golf?

In the end, Mr. Mickelson didn’t win it for Amy or for anybody else. He finished second, which until last April-when he won the Masters at the somewhat advanced age of 33 for his first major championship-was the story of his life. He had finished second in two other U.S. Opens, including the championship played a few miles away at Bethpage State Park in 2002. That’s where the love affair between New York and Mr. Mickelson started. Back then, he was the perennial runner-up, the guy with game who just couldn’t get it done when it mattered, seemingly destined to be remembered as a good player who had the misfortune to hit his peak at a time when that fellow Mr. Woods came along.

And the New York crowds loved him, even though rooting for Phil Mickelson in 2002 was something like rooting for the Boston Red Sox. Or, for that matter, for the Brooklyn Dodgers, circa 1954.

Of course, the Dodgers finally had their day in 1955, and Mr. Mickelson finally had his in April.

The Dodgers moved away shortly after winning their only major title in Brooklyn. Mr. Mickelson, on the other hand, will be back in two years, when the Open is contested at Winged Foot in Westchester County.

You can hear the roars already.