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9:13PM

RealClearSports: Phil and His Not-So-Private Struggle

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. -- We are taking part in Phil Mickelson’s private life made public. We are listening to his words, feeling his pain, understanding his fears, wishing him and Amy only the best.

It is never easy for any family when cancer strikes. It must be worse for someone famous, a movie star, an athletic hero, a face we know, a golfer we respect.

Always there is another good wish, always another tear, always another request for an interview.

The 109th U.S. Open starts today at Bethpage muni’s Black Course, where Mickelson, who played so well in the Open seven years ago, hopes to find success. And perhaps relief.

The country was made aware a few weeks ago. Amy Mickelson had breast cancer. Pink ribbons fluttered. Phil dropped off the Tour.

A week ago, at Memphis, the tournament named for St. Jude, ironically the patron saint of desperate causes, Phil returned. His game did not.

Mickelson closed with a 75, a tie for 59th. And now it is the most difficult tournament of any year, America’s national championship, the event with the high rough and slick greens where any mistake is magnified.

Phil says he is ready. Ready for the competition. Ready for what lies ahead. The family, Amy, the three children, normally at every tournament, is home in southern California. Where Phil’s thoughts will be is the question.

This is Mickelson country. Tiger remains the attraction, as well as the favorite, but here on Long Island, where both Bethpage and Shinnecock Hills are located, and across the Hudson River in New Jersey, Phil is idolized.

At the ’02 Open at Bethpage, the ’04 Open at Shinnecock, the ’06 PGA Championship at Baltusrol in Jersey, the support and the shouts were overwhelming.

It was a Yankees crowd. A Mets crowd. A crowd boisterous and partisan. A crowd that called Phil Mickelson “The Mick.” A crowd that may be exactly what he needs this week, along with an accurate game off the tee.

“It could be that support helps carry me through on emotionally when I’m on the course,” Mickelson said Wednesday. “I’m certainly hoping for that.”

So are many others. Phil has won two Masters and one PGA. He’s never won an Open. He lost one, as we recall, not far away from here, in 2006 at Winged Foot in Mamaroneck up the road from Manhattan, when he blew a final-round lead with a double bogey on the 72nd hole.

It was agony. “I am such an idiot,” he said that fateful Sunday. This is agony of another sort. This is trying to keep one’s mind on a game where any slip could mean failure while 2,500 miles away a wife waits with her doubts.

There are expressions of sympathy. There are comments of understanding. Darren Clarke went through this torture a few years back. For Tiger Woods it was a similar ordeal as his father was dying from cancer.

“Is it easy?” Tiger asked rhetorically when discussing Mickelson’s situation -- and his own. “No, it’s not easy.

“Everywhere you go, people are reminding you of it, and you can’t get away from it. And you think that the golf course would be your escape, but it’s not. You’re surrounded by people wishing you well . . . but then again they keep reminding you of the circumstance you’re dealing with on a daily basis, and you can’t get away from it.”

Mickelson, whose 39th birthday was Tuesday, said the timing for the Open could not have been better. Amy is awaiting treatment and probably surgery. The future is a blur. So Phil will grasp the present.

“It will be a fun week,” he said of the Open. In 2002 he finished second at Bethpage, three strokes behind Tiger.

“I'm putting everything I have into this week, because I don’t anticipate being able to play for a while.”

A vacation is planned. Then comes the treatment.

“You’d never know what she was going through,” Mickelson said of his wife. “When we get started it will be different, but she’s an amazing person . . . how she treats people, how she interacts . . . and I think it’s hard for me to see somebody who is such good person go through something so difficult.”

Mickelson insisted despite his finish at Memphis he hit the ball well, attempting to replicate shots he would need at Bethpage. He has mapped out a game plan, when to be bold, if ever on an Open layout, when to be prudent.

Amy Mickelson offered her advice. “She’s left me a number of little notes, texts, cards, hints,” said Phil, “that she would like to have a silver trophy in her hospital room. So I’m going to try and accommodate that.”

The rest of us, invading Phil’s world, can only say good luck.
As a reporter since 1960, Art Spander is a living treasure of sports history. A recipient of the Dick McCann Memorial Award -- given for his long and distinguished career covering professional football -- he has earned himself a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And he has recently been honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the PGA of America for 2009.

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