Phil Mickelson a clear fan favorite
Many of the 75,000 fans at the Byron Nelson on Sunday were there for elite golfer
IRVING, Texas -- Phil Mickelson's tee shot on No. 11, a short par-4 where players can take driver and attempt to hit the green for a momentum-building eagle or birdie, nearly hit a group of fans on the hill Sunday afternoon.
You can bet a few of them would have preferred that. First, it would have stopped the ball from bounding across Byron Circle, a road that dissects part of the golf course, thereby helping Mickelson, a clear fan favorite at the HP Byron Nelson Championship in the Dallas area.
But it also would have provided a great story to tell at the office Monday, not to mention a likely gift from one of the world's top golfers. About six or seven years ago, Mickelson hit a fan on a par-3 here at the Nelson and handed him a signed glove. There was a $50 bill inside.
Of course, by not hitting anyone, Mickelson gave fans the chance to sprint to his errant tee ball like they were chasing Olympic gold.
Two of those were 33-year-old Stephen Noll and his 8-year-old nephew, Nicholas. They secured a prime spot to see Mickelson work his magic with a wedge, hitting a flop shot over the trees and just off the green, saving par on the hole.
Maybe that's worth more than $50.
"This was how I got Nicholas to come today," said Noll, one of 75,000 in attendance Sunday -- at least half of them following Mickelson. "He wanted to see Lefty. This might be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. You don't know when or if he'll be back here. He's nice and friendly. He loves fans. You never know what he might do and that's fun."
Dallas fans have waited five years to see Mickelson walk inside the ropes at the Nelson and he gave them the full Phil experience Sunday. He made long putts, pumping his fist and tipping his visor. He nearly chipped in a few times, pummeled a few drives and worked his way up the leaderboard in Sunday charge mode.
At one point, he was 1 stroke back. But part of watching Mickelson is seeing the mistakes that make you shake your head. Like his three-foot miss for par on 17. Or his 9-iron second shot on 18 that ended up wet.
All of that is why fans love him. None of us can hit flop shots as consistently as Phil can. But all of us miss three-footers.
"It was disappointing to have missed that first putt [for birdie]," Mickelson said about No. 17. "I don't know what happened on the second. I gave it my full attention. I left it like I wanted to, it spun out."
Still, Mickelson was pleased that he made some putts and put himself in a position to make things interesting.
"I had a great day today," said Mickelson, who ended up tied for seventh, five back of champion Jason Dufner. "The wind was calm and left the golf course accessible to birdies. I got hot with the putter. I didn't knock down the pins, but I gave myself some putts and made a few and it was nice to see some of them going in."
After Mickelson finished with the media, a fan reached over a fence with a golf glove in his hand, begging Mickelson to sign it. He waved him around to the autograph area and stayed nearly 30 minutes signing for fans, something he did every day here.
The Nelson had another exciting finish Sunday and Dufner is a worthy champion, making a memorable 25-footer on the final hole for a one-shot win over Dicky Pride. But it was Mickelson who controlled the crowd. They came out early Sunday hoping to see Mickelson scare the leaders and he obliged. His 11-foot birdie putt on five got him going and he made three more after that. When he drained a 30-footer on No. 8, the fans -- six deep around the green -- let out a mighty roar.
"He's the guy I wanted to see," said Aaron Quarles, a 33-year-old banker from Denison, Texas. "I thought about driving to Houston in April, but I'm glad he's playing here. He hits it in some tough places and it's fun to see him get out of it."
After Mickelson made par on No. 9, he saw 5-year-old Beau McFarlane wearing a Masters hat and sitting near the ropes. Mickelson tossed him the ball, causing everyone in the family to cheer and smile. The McFarlanes, which included Beau's 6-year-old brother, Ryder, had waited through five or six groups just hoping to be in the right spot to see Mickelson.
"He got Vijay Singh's ball last year and we brought it with us," said Beau's father, Brian. "Phil is just a tremendous player. He's got great morals, true character and he handled his wife's cancer like a real gentleman. We're missing that today in sports."
Mickelson said he normally tries to find a cute kid to give a ball to after most holes, joking that he wouldn't dare toss one to the older folks covering his every move in the media.
On No. 15, Mickelson found himself in a green-side bunker. As soon as he hit out of it, a voice yelled: "Get in the hole." It nearly did, as it burned the edge, eliciting a reaction from Mickelson. That voice was Stacy Elliott, who just couldn't help himself.
"He's Phil, man," Elliott said. "He's from California and so am I. And he's Phil. What else can I say?"
Phil won over the Dallas fans all over again. They also won him over.
"Dallas has given me some of the best, most exciting sports events that I've been a part of," Mickelson said. "I went to a Dallas Stars game [years ago], and I didn't grow up with hockey, and to have that experience, to see 48,000 people at a regular Rangers game, that's special. I've been to a couple of Mavs playoff games.
"The community supports sports so well here and this tournament is no different. The size of the crowd, as well as the quality of the crowds, is great, and it's fun for us to be a part of it."
The fans just hope to see Mickelson again soon.