The favorite vs. Fan favorite: Defending champion Woods, emotional Mickelson set for US Open

By Tim Reynolds, AP
Thursday, June 18, 2009

Woods starts defense of US Open at rainy Bethpage

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. — Tiger Woods’ defense of the U.S. Open started with an adventure.

Woods pulled his tee shot 50 yards left into the rough before scrambling for an improbable par on his opening hole Thursday morning, as steady rain pelted an already-moist Bethpage Black.

Playing alongside fellow reigning major winners Padraig Harrington and Angel Cabrera, Woods’ first shot was so far off line he considered playing a second ball from the tee.

He wound up playing his second shot from the front of a merchandise tent and got up and down from a greenside bunker for par.

On Wednesday, the applause started 22 strides before fan favorite Phil Mickelson reached the 18th green during his practice round, crescendoing until he tipped his cap and nodded in appreciation.

No one, least of all Mickelson, seemed to mind that his ball was in a front bunker.

Mickelson isn’t from New York, but for the next week, those strangers behind the ropes at Bethpage Black are his new best friends. For his lone practice round Wednesday, many wore pink shirts and ribbons to show support for his wife Amy’s fight with breast cancer, shouted encouragement whenever the world’s No. 2 player walked past and even sang a day-late verse of “Happy Birthday.”

“I’m putting everything I have into this week, because I don’t anticipate being able to play for a little while,” Mickelson said. “And the fact that my normal support system, Amy and the kids and so forth, aren’t going to make the trip this week, I’m kind of hoping to have that or feel the support to kind of help me through the week.”

Mickelson isn’t planning to play the British Open, since his wife begins treatment for the recently diagnosed cancer July 1. After this, he doesn’t know when or where he’ll play again.

He’s not here for appearances sake.

He wants to win, believes he can win, believes he can make his wife’s request — to bring her that silver championship trophy — happen.

The weight of her cancer looms, though, surely set to make the tough-enough chore of winning a major even more pronounced.

“Hats off to how he’s handled it because certainly it’s so hard to do,” Woods said. “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 the entire time. … You just can’t get away from it. It’s hard.”

Bethpage is hard enough under normal circumstances.

This national championship started with a record 9,086 players sending in entries, eventually getting whittled down through qualifying tournaments and a handful of withdrawals.

At the end, 156 held entries for the U.S. Open.

And now, 155 have the world’s No. 1 on their radar.

Woods has never shrouded the fact that major championships are the weeks he builds his year — his career, really — around. Jack Nicklaus, he quickly says, is the greatest golfer of all-time, based on Woods’ most simple measuring stick.

“He’s got 18,” Woods said. “I’m at 14.”

His quest for major No. 15, one that’ll put him three back of Nicklaus on the all-time list, begins with a marquee grouping of reigning major champions, as he’ll join Padraig Harrington and Angel Cabrera.

“From tee to green, this golf course is all you want,” said Woods, a dual defending champion of sorts after beating Rocco Mediate in a playoff at Torrey Pines last year and also winning when the Open first came to Bethpage in 2002.

Rickie Fowler, an amateur who made the cut at last year’s Open, was the first person to swing away from the opening hole Thursday. He arrived under cloudy skies at 6:54 a.m.

It started raining two minutes later.

Fowler pulled his tee shot a bit left into the thick, soaked Bethpage rough, then scrambled for a par as a strong shower pelted the course.

Bethpage is set up as the second-longest U.S. Open layout in history, and as an added bonus, it’ll have three different par-4s measuring more than 500 yards.

In other words, rain, rain, go away.

Storms were in the forecast for Thursday, and there isn’t a whole lot of relief expected through the weekend, either. Bethpage’s greens are soft and receptive, but the fairways are spongy and the always-thick U.S. Open rough is teetering on becoming borderline-impossible.

“If we can’t play it, if it’s not fair to be playing the ball as it lies, we’ll suspend play,” said Jim Hyler, the chairman of the United States Golf Association’s championship committee. “We’ll stay here until we get a champion.”

Mickelson, who was second at Bethpage in 2002 — the fourth runner-up finish he’s posted in a U.S. Open — wouldn’t mind getting that fairytale ending.

His wife left him notes and cards and texts, little reminders of her support. While she’s home in California, she wanted her husband to be at Bethpage Black.

“I’m going to just do the best that I can,” Mickelson said. “I feel like my game is ready.”

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