Phil Mickelson may have lost his PGA Tour privileges, his sponsorships, the respect of his peers and the support of the golf media ... but he'll always have the gallery.
Playing in his first stateside event since making the comments about the Saudi government that sent him into golf exile, Mickelson enjoyed the cheers of the Boston gallery at The Country Club, giving thumbs-up all week long. On Thursday, his 52nd birthday, Mickelson stepped to the first tee amid a raucous reception from a crowd lined 10 deep.
Sporting his new tough-guy stubble and black gear that featured only his own personal logo — a silhouette of his three-inch vertical when he won the Masters in 2004 — Mickelson fired his first tee shot right into the heart of the first fairway. It was one of the few highlights of the early part of Mickelson's round.
But the support of the fans doesn't mean a thing to the scoreboard. Mickelson struggled throughout the opening holes, bogeying three of the first five. On the par-3 6th, he had just over 12 feet for birdie ... and ended up double-bogeying the hole.
He ballooned to 6-over before carding a birdie at 11, receiving a brief roar from the crowd, but that would be the lone highlight for Mickelson. He doubled the 12th, finished with a 8-over 78 and will a lot of birdies Friday to make the cut.
Mickelson's love-hate relationship with the U.S. Open is a complex and 30-year affair. It's the one major he needs to complete the career grand slam, the one major that's bedeviled him more than any other. Even so, through all the frustration, all the second-place finishes (6), he's been able to count on the galleries, urging him on and, every year, singing him "Happy Birthday" around the course.
NBC's Notah Begay reported during the broadcast that galleries around Mickelson behaved, cheering without much heckling. A few fans did ask Mickelson for betting advice, a reference to his acknowledged issue with gambling. Three uniformed police officers accompanied Mickelson, two more than Rory McIlroy had in the morning.
Over the course of his 30-year professional career, Mickelson has won over fans with his daring, gunslinger approach to the game and his very public vulnerabilities. Fans can relate to him, if not necessarily to his bank account. He's cultivated that image for decades, and losing all those U.S. Opens seems only to strengthen his relationship with his fans.
Since he's committed to LIV Golf, Mickelson won't be making many more appearances on U.S. soil for the foreseeable future. But it's clear from Thursday that he hasn't lost the support of at least some of his devoted fanbase.
Contact Jay Busbee at email@example.com or on Twitter at @jaybusbee.