FARMINGDALE, N.Y. - At the 1999 U.S. Open that provided the lasting image of Payne Stewart, runner-up Phil Mickelson also captured America's imagination. He played that week knowing his wife, Amy, was expecting their first child at any time. He kept telling everyone he was going to leave the moment he found out she'd gone into labor.
Their daughter was born a day after the tournament ended, with Stewart telling him on the 18th green to go be a great father.
A decade later, the second-best golfer in the food chain is playing in another U.S. Open without her by his side. This time, she's back home in Southern California, with the couple's three children, preparing for the battle of her life. Last month, they let the world know that Amy had breast cancer. The response and support has been off the charts. Phil celebrated his 39th birthday on Tuesday with his family. Early yesterday morning he showed up at Bethpage Black - where he finished second behind Tiger Woods at the 2002 Open - to talk about their unified ordeal.
Nobody knows what's going to happen here. Or in the upcoming months. But through all the uncertainty, Mickelson is simply trying to be all he can be for the best thing that ever entered his world.
"We'll start our treatment July 1," said Mickelson, who in past New York majors has been embraced by the in-your-face crowds like a native son. "We'll have a great family vacation next week. And we kind of have a game plan on moving forward.
"At first, we didn't know what was going to take place. But ever since the original diagnosis, we've had little tidbits of good news here and there.
"All these thoughts go through your head. I don't know how to put into words how appreciative Amy and I are of [the overwhelming encouragement]. We don't feel like we're in this alone. So many people do. There are 200,000 people that go through this every year. So we are by far a long ways from being the only ones."
But they are among the few who will do so in public.
"It is much more difficult than [going through it] privately, because there is no reprieve," he acknowledged. "When she goes to the mall, she gets people that she knows or hasn't seen in a while come up and cry. There's no place for her to go to forget for a while. Again, the support has meant the world to us. So there's give and take . . . ''
The '99 Open "was amazing, a very interesting week," he said. "We were excited about what's to come. This has an entirely opposite feel, because we're scared about what's to come. So it's different. I really don't know what else to say."
Because there's really nothing more to say. They seemingly have it all. Now that could be taken away. He almost lost Amy once before, in 2003, while she was delivering their second child.
"She's an amazing individual," Mickelson stressed. "You'd never know she was going through this. I don't know how to express how lucky I am. Everybody sees her when she comes out [here], how she treats people, how she interacts with people, how she connects with people, how she looks people in the eye and genuinely cares about what's going on in their life. And I get to experience that every day with her. I could go on and on. I think it's hard for me to see somebody that is such a good person go through something so difficult.
"She doesn't have a mean bone in her body. She thinks about others first. She loves being a mother. She's just made my life so enjoyable to live. But we're going to get through this together. And it's a great opportunity for me to be there for her. It's brought us closer."
The Big Apple's affection for Phil took root in 2002. And he has hugged them right back. He finished second in the 2004 Open at Shinnecock Hills, out on the eastern tip of Long Island. Ditto the 2006 Open at Winged Foot, where he made an infamous double-bogey on the closing hole to lose by one. And he won the 2005 PGA at Baltusrol, over in North Jersey.
He played last week in Memphis, for the first time in a month, and finished tied for 59th. After this week, he's going to put away his clubs again. He probably won't be teeing it up in next month's British Open, and might also miss the PGA in August. It obviously depends on where Amy is.
"That's why I'm putting everything I have into this week, because I don't anticipate being able to play for a little while," he said. "The fact that my normal support system aren't [here], I'm kind of hoping to feel that [from the galleries], to kind of help me get through it.
"Last week was important for me to play, so that I'm able to focus more on just playing golf this week. She's left me a number of little notes, texts, cards, hints, that she would like to have a silver trophy in her hospital room. So I'm trying to accommodate her.
"I'm actually hitting the ball better than I have in a long time. And possibly ever. I know it doesn't seem like that, after my score in Memphis. But I'm really excited. When Amy's going through tests and I'm sitting in the hospital for 10 hours, I'm thinking about a lot of things. But I would take a break and think about my golf swing. I'm very optimistic about my ball-striking. I think the key for me will be on the greens. I putted very well in '02. If I have a good putting week, I expect to be in contention on Sunday."
If that's indeed the case, you might be able to hear the noise at the new Yankee Stadium. He tees off at 1:36 this afternoon, on No. 10, with two-time U.S. Open champs Ernie Els and Retief Goosen, the guy who beat him at the end in that '04 Open. The roars figure to be monstrous all the way around. Even Lefty won't know how he responds until he's out there.
"I love coming back here," he said. "Bethpage is one of my favorite golf courses. But I'm more excited that the reason I'm able to play is we've had some good news that has not rushed treatment, has given us the time, an opportunity, to see some tests results and give us a better direction on what we should do to not just cure her, but prevent it from coming back.
"We want to keep life as normal as we could. We're going to go through treatment. We're optimistic what the end result will be. But the process won't be easy. In the interim, though, we want to try to have as normal a life as possible."
He understands that will be virtually impossible. Just because. He plays a game for a living. This is reality. And it's forever. He wants to grow old as a couple. He would trade all the trophies to make that happen.
"I feel like my game is ready, but you never know," Mickelson said. "I'm going to just do the best that I can. I feel like emotionally, I'm better. But you just never know. So we'll play it by ear, day-by-day."
There's really no other way, because it never gets any harsher than the unknown.
As expected, Oakmont Country Club has been awarded the 2016 U.S. Open. It will be the record ninth time the Open will be played at the suburban Pittsburgh course. The Open was last played there in 2007. *