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No choke this time for Mickelson

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. -- It would have been nice if at last Phil Mickelson could have planted a kiss on the silver U.S. Open trophy. The two have been dating for years, but the Open always plays hard to get. There's always an excuse: It has to do its hair … It has a headache … Its dad won't let it date left-handers.

So Mickelson finished second again. And if this were any other Open under any other circumstances, you could argue that Mickelson gagged another one away. He was tied for the lead deep into the back nine of the final round -- and then he wasn't.

But this wasn't any other Open. This was a five-day, 72-hole car wash played on a muscle beach of a golf course. But that wasn't the hardest part for Mickelson. The hardest part was playing it with a lump in his throat, a hole in his heart and a pink ribbon embroidered on the side of his cap.

Choke? Mickelson didn't choke. There were no Open oxygen-flow problems like there were three years ago at Winged Foot's 18th hole. That was the Open he buried his head in his hands in disbelief. On Monday at Bethpage Black, he left here with his head held high.

Lucas Glover won the 109th U.S. Open fair and square. But if the golf gods knew a happy ending when they saw one, Mickelson would have been the guy hoisting the trophy. Didn't they know he had promised to win the Open for his wife, Amy, who begins treatment for breast cancer in July?

"I think maybe it's more in perspective for me because I don't feel -- I feel different this time," Mickelson said afterward.

I don't know how he made the cut, much less finished tied for second place. He began the morning 5 strokes out of the lead. But he began the tournament with his mind on Amy.

"Kind of an emotional four days or five days," he said. "I thought the grounds crew and USGA did a great job getting it in."

See that? Mickelson did his best to keep the deflector shields up at all times. Ask him to reflect on what had to be one of the most difficult tournaments of his professional life and he yammers away about the grounds crew. Or how Bethpage Black would make a wonderful Ryder Cup venue. Blah, blah, blah.

And I don't blame him a bit.

But there was no hiding his disappointment. Nobody wants to hold the world record for most U.S. Open second-place finishes (five).

"Yeah, it will be a quiet ride home," said Steve Loy, Mickelson's agent. "But the way he is -- and the way [Amy] will make it -- they'll be up and happy and glad to be together as soon as he gets off that airplane. This will be over and in the history books very soon."

Loy paused for a moment. "Yeah, that's quite a family." Then a longer pause. "Wow."

Mickelson moved into a tie with Glover after eagling the par-5 13th hole. (Question: How can someone named Glover not wear a glove?) But then Mickelson bogeyed the par-4 15th and then the par-3 17th to drop to 2-under. All Glover had to do was not 4-putt on the final hole. He didn't.

"Certainly I'm disappointed," Mickelson said, "but now that it's over, I've got more important things going on. Oh, well."

Make no mistake: This latest second-place finish will leave a bruise mark on Mickelson. But nobody left Bethpage Black with more admirers than Mickelson. He'll have to ice down his shoulder blades after all the backslaps from New Yorkers.

Even his playing partner, Hunter Mahan, who finished tied for sixth, couldn't help himself. When Mickelson was done on No. 18, Mahan joined the rest of the huge gallery and started clapping.

"Clapping for Phil, man," Mahan said. "Can't imagine what he's going through, what he's thinking right now. He played so hard."

Mickelson could have phoned it in during the Open and nobody would have said a peep. But he didn't.

"He was really digging deep out there this week," said his caddie, Jim MacKay. "Really digging deep -- he's a tough guy. He's got guts."

Mickelson and MacKay shared a rental house during tournament week. They returned to the house Sunday evening after a long day at the course and there was a line of kids from the neighborhood waiting on the sidewalk.

"So he signed 30-40 autographs in the yard," MacKay said.

Mickelson killed time by going to the movies, by shopping for books and DVDs, by eating breakfast at a local diner, by watching his alma mater, Arizona State, in the College World Series on TV. But always in the back and front of his mind was Amy.

Before the tournament began she had left notes, e-mails and text messages for Mickelson. Bottom line: She wouldn't mind if Phil left Bethpage with that U.S. Open trophy under his arm.

He tried. You've got to give him that much. But the conditions and the course weren't built for birdies Monday. Nobody was going to go low, not with the breezes, the condition of the greens and the U.S. Open pressure. Mickelson shot even-par 70. The other two second-place finishers -- David Duval and Ricky Barnes -- shot 71 and 76, respectively. Glover ended up with a 73.

Mickelson did his post-round media interviews and then peeled off and signed autographs. Other players made a beeline for the courtesy car lot; Mickelson signed autographs.

A security detail of state troopers and local police finally escorted him to the silver Volvo. Mickelson signed pin flags and stuffed dolls (don't ask) for them. Just before he got into the front passenger's seat, a dozen or so fans began chanting his name.

Mickelson nodded toward them. "Thanks for a great week, guys," he said.

Thank them? You've got it all wrong, Phil. Thank you.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here.