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BILL PLASCHKE

Phil Mickelson's success sits very well with fans

Mickelson, already one of the most popular figures in golf and now gaining more admiration as his wife and mother battle cancer, fires a crowd-pleasing 67 to move to within one shot of the lead. In the process he provides a stark contrast to an increasingly surly Tiger Woods.

April 10, 2010|Bill Plaschke

With a giant clink, the ball disappeared into the mass of people crowding the left side of the 18th green.

Everyone but Crystal Hodges scattered. The young medical worker from Myrtle Beach, S.C., was not allowed to move. The ball had landed directly under her green folding chair. She was ordered to sit still until her hero arrived.

"Hey, how are you doing?" said Phil Mickelson, approaching with a smile.

"Um, good," she said. "How are you doing?"

How is he doing? Hodges spends her days working with cancer patients. She came to Augusta National for her first Masters on Saturday to cheer Mickelson because he is helping his wife and mother battle cancer. Out of nowhere, her chair had just stopped his ball from further trouble.

How do you think Phil Mickelson is doing? The chair was moved, Hodges was resettled, Mickelson calmly chipped onto the green and saved par to appropriately finish perhaps the most fortuitous round of his life.

"All that he's going through, and he asks how I'm doing?'' Hodges said later. "How could anybody not cheer for him?"

On a pine-scented Southern Saturday filled with wows and whoas and three consecutive holes of good-gawd-almighty, Mickelson turned that into a rhetorical question.

During five hours that transformed a sophisticated gallery into a chest-bumping, high-fiving college basketball mob, the guy with the baggy shirt and shaggy smile shot a 67 that bought him a crowd, a course, and perhaps even a tournament. He enters today's final round one stroke behind leader Lee Westwood, but the moment is already his.

"This is the way I expect to play but this is . . . I haven't played this way in a long time," Mickelson said later.

Masters crowds haven't seen anything like this in a long time, particularly the three-hole stretch on the back nine during which Mickelson came within a couple of feet of the first three consecutive eagles in this tournament's 74-year history.

I stumbled upon his greatness as I was walking back to the clubhouse after following the increasingly surly Tiger Woods. I was walking below the 14th green when I suddenly heard a roar that rattled the wood chips, a roar that carried cigar-chomping men into the arms of plaid and proper women, everyone hugging and dancing through the pollen and the pines.

It turns out I had left Amen Corner for a Hallelujah, for Mickelson's 141-yard wedge shot that rolled into the hole for that second eagle, and that's when I realized it.

He was not only taking this tournament for himself, but he was taking it from Woods, who reverted to his old entitled ways.

"You suck! Goddamnit!" Woods screamed on the sixth tee, one of three times he would loudly curse into the television microphones.

This is the same Woods who promised to show a newfound respect for the game. This is, of course, also the same Woods who this week mindlessly compared his sex scandal comeback to the comeback of Ben Hogan, even though Hogan was injured heroically in 1949 while throwing himself in front of his wife when their car collided with a bus. As the blogs so brilliantly reminded us, Woods threw his wife under a bus.

"As much as everyone still loves Tiger Woods, I think golf people need another hero, and Phil fits that perfectly,'' said Don Everett, a Denver businessman who celebrated Mickelson's second eagle by shoving his cigar into the air and hugging everyone in an executive mosh pit.

Woods wound up shooting a 70 and is tied for third, four strokes behind Westwood, but he was so upset he immediately retired to the practice range and hit balls until dark. For better and for worse, the old Woods is back.

Mickelson was also upset early in his round, missing several big putts on the front nine, but you know what he did? He didn't yell at himself, he yelled at his ball, and you know what he called it?

"C'mon, honey," he would shout as the ball sailed toward the green. "C'mon, honey!"

America will cheer Mickelson today for his bravery in playing golf while overseeing two cancer treatments, for his behavior in the effort, and for the magic it is apparently creating.

Mickelson will be cheered not by the masses, but from the home, as his wife and three children will be with him at a tournament for the first time in 11 months, since the day his wife Amy was first diagnosed with breast cancer.

"It takes a lot of the heartache away," Mickelson said, and Sunday I'll be cheering for him, because I'll be cheering for that.

For the record, when Crystal Hodges asked Mickelson how he was doing Saturday afternoon as she sat upon his ball, he actually answered her.

"Pretty good," he said.

An understatement. His only one.

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