WE WANTED storybook.

We got reality.

We wanted to cry with Phil Mickelson, wanted all that rain and mud at Bethpage to serve as a backdrop when this great human-interest story was told in years to come. So often imbedded in second place like those balls hit into bunkers yesterday, Phil Mickelson was going to write his own Disney ending, was going to rewrite his own history, too.

Instead he repeated it. He owns the record now, five runner-up U.S. Open finishes, a few via horrifically inept final days. This wasn't that kind of ending for Mickelson, who has won three majors but no U.S. Opens. His wife was back in California, prepping for a grueling first round of radiation and chemotherapy to battle recently diagnosed breast cancer. Mickelson was at Bethpage Black because she told him to be there, but it was clear he was dealing with far more than pin placement and squishy greens.

A U.S. Open in New York is unlike a U.S. Open in any other place. They can be harsh, New York fans, especially when they shoot over par in beer. I remember the golf writer from my old paper in Norfolk, Va., returning livid about that as far back as 1986, ticked at the treatment Greg Norman received when he slid from the lead in the final two rounds of the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills.

It might be worse now, a time of mean-spirited reality shows and basement bloggers who toss verbal grenades at athletes they will never meet and never care to understand. These days, we relish our viciousness. No matter how stupid it sounds.

Mickelson pulled the pin for them in the final round. He rallied to tie for the lead with a couple of spectacular holes, then fired into his foot again by missing a couple of incredibly makeable putts. Three feet. Eight feet.

If this was Greg Norman . . .

But it's not. Even before he became the latest heart-wrenching sports story, Mickelson has been an open and easy-to-read book. As a sportsman, that has often been seen as weakness, but this event forced us to at least rethink that. Over and over again, he reached out and shook people's hands. Despite the awful end, he stayed long after to sign autographs. He played under a huge glare, and he played well enough to flip the pages of that storybook to that last, evasive chapter.

"Certainly, I'm disappointed," he said. "But now that it's over, I've got more important things going on.

"And . . . oh, well."

Thirty years in this business has produced this theory about people like Lefty: Those who struggle with big moments are too much like us. They can't block out the grandness of the moment, can't reduce it in size. They can't block out the past and the future, at least not completely, not well enough.

Ray Knight used to say the key to hitting a baseball was to think about nothing. I've been on this earth for 50 years and I still don't think that's possible. But I'm sure Ray Knight does.

They lean too close toward normal, guys like Mickelson. When his wife was pregnant with the first of their three children, he thought about leaving the last day of the U.S. Open to be with her. He was at Bethpage this past week only because she urged him to go, challenged him to bring back that silver trophy for her hospital room. Mickelson might have botched 15 and 17, but how he lasted that long with all the stuff running around in his head . . .

Well, maybe he's not as normal as I think he is.

It's an angry time in our history. Job losses, job insecurity, evaporating wealth from tumbling stocks, new illnesses, old ones that gain in strength and numbers - these are unforgiving days that have spawned an unforgiving culture.

That dissolved yesterday at Bethpage. The great putt at the end to win the trophy for his ailing wife? The storybook ending to this lucky week? None of it materialized. But in the rawness of another Mickelson reality, there was a bond often missing in these events, a bond forged through empathy and sympathy.

"Thanks for a great week," Mickelson said to stragglers as he headed off to the airport.

Thanks, indeed. *

Send e-mail to donnels@phillynews.com. For recent columns, go to http://go.philly.com/donnellon.