It started before Phil Mickelson hit his first tee shot at The Players Championship. He walked up to the standard-bearer for his playing group, Ponte Vedra High senior Amy Dantin, with this greeting: "Are you going to be with us today? ... . Hi, I'm Phil," then shook her hand.
And so began five-plus hours Thursday of the Arnie Light tour -- the eye contact, dozens of fist-bumps, ball giveaways to kids, thumbs-up acknowledgments to the gallery, conversing with people while signing autographs, posing for pictures -- on the grounds of the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass.
Inside the ropes, Mickelson, especially now that Arnold Palmer is gone, works a golf course to connect with the masses like nobody on the planet. And while Arnie's Army came out in bigger numbers over a half-century ago, the Phil Fanatics are no less enthusiastic to have their bonding moment with Mickelson.
As he signed autographs in the kids-only zone behind the 18th green, a woman nearly 100 feet away wanting his signature on her hat shouts out to the five-time major champion: "Please, Mr. Mickelson! I'm a grandmother that loves you!"
Phil smiles and responds out of her earshot, to the delight of nearby fans holding out Masters flags and assorted memorabilia: "Come down here [for an autograph], quit yelling at me."
Finally, St. John's County deputy Bobby Stewart, assigned as part of Mickelson's security team, walks over to grab the woman's hat and brings it to her beloved golfer. Not only does Mickelson sign his name, he also writes "Thanks for all your support."
Another 10-15 seconds out of Phil's day. Another among thousands of lifetime memories he creates for fans who can't get enough of his willingness to engage the customers.
If you think there has to be a Palmer story behind the Mickelson public relations mindset, you'd be correct. It happened at the 1994 U.S. Open at Oakmont as Lefty watched Arnie sign autographs and take pictures at the volunteers' tent.
"I talked to [Palmer] about it and he said, 'It's the volunteers and fans who allow us to play golf for a living. They're the ones buying the tickets and promoting the game,' " Mickelson said. "That always stuck in my head."
As did Arnie's advice about making eye contact with people and not scribbling your autograph, but signing in a way that's legible.
But it's not like Mickelson waited until he completed his two-under-par round of 70 to begin connecting with the audience. His strategy for engagement is an 18-hole process. The ball giveaway to kids -- he usually hands out 7-9 new ones from the dozen in his bag -- started at the 15th hole (his sixth) to 6-year-old Anthony Tatro of Myrtle Beach, S.C.
When he got to hole No. 1, Mickelson recognized Tatro and said: "Didn't I already give you a ball today? But I didn't give your sister one." So Phil handed another ball to 5-year-old Gianna and told the siblings as he walked away: "I like your [sun] glasses, too. They're very cool."
That is vintage Mickelson, trying to accommodate fans without creating angst among family members.
"I don't like giving a ball to one child and not the other," said Mickelson. "As a parent with three kids, you know that's going to lead to issues later. I don't want to put parents in a bind like that."
Remember, this isn't a charity pro-am. Mickelson is trying to win The Players for a second time and hone his game for next month's U.S. Open chase. It requires a lot of concentration and minimal distractions. But like a politician glad-handing voters and kissing babies on the campaign trail, he willingly engages fans in-between shots. And if there's a wheelchair-bound fan in the vicinity, especially a child, it's a guarantee Phil pays a visit.
"Each person has to find out what allows them to play their best," said Mickelson. "I'm not like Ben Hogan. I'm not like Tiger Woods, where I get in my own world and I'm oblivious to all that's going on around me. When I hit a shot, I try to focus in on that shot, then try to let my mind go."
Some observers seeing the 46-year-old Mickelson achieve massive popularity have quietly questioned his sincerity as a people-pleaser. And there's no doubt been underlying tension between him and Tiger, whose reputation for accommodating the golf public is totally opposite of his long-time rival.
But regardless of how anyone views Mickelson's motives, or those whispers about him being phony Phil, there's no denying he makes an honest effort to connect with fans in a meaningful way. He's taken the big-picture lesson given him by Palmer and tried to apply it.
"It doesn't matter if he's shooting 77 or 67, every single time, he's giving out balls and asking kids for a fist bump for good luck," said Jim "Bones" Mackay, his longtime caddie. "For years, he signed every single autograph [request]. We'd go to lunch and he couldn't pick up a sandwich with his right hand because his arm was hurting. He's had to curtail that."
Mickelson invested about 20-25 minutes signing after his round, unable to accommodate everybody. His playing partner, Jordan Spieth -- arguably the most popular player of his generation along with Rickie Fowler -- applauds Mickelson for the way he engages fans.
"You understand the impression that he's made on people," Spieth said. "Just growing up watching him, people he interacts with come back and say, 'Oh, Phil was awesome, he gave me a high-five or an autograph.' This is going back before I even knew the guy.
"Why wouldn't you want to do that for people, make their day, right? It's kind of what you should do."
The void left by Palmer passing will never be totally filled. The talent and charisma of an American icon, plus his star ascending along with the birth of television golf to create Arnie's Army, is a circumstance nearly impossible to duplicate.
But if Palmer is looking down on Mickelson, he's undoubtedly smiling, watching him repay people who put money in his pocket with kindness and gratitude. In his own way, Phil is carrying on The King's legacy.
It's hard not to acknowledge that with a big thumbs-up.
This article is written by Gene Frenette from The Florida Times-Union and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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