John Harper, SNY.tv | Twitter |
The roars from Bethpage Park on Thursday are bound to be loud enough to resonate all over Long Island. Heck, they might even be loud enough to make you think Zion Williamson announced he's pulling an Eli Manning, declaring it's New York or bust. The Draft Lottery be damned.
Yes, sometimes it seems that sports bring nothing but bad news for New York anymore. What do we have to do to claim a "W" these days, nevermind end this ongoing championship drought of our various pro teams?
Well, speaking of those highly-anticipated roars, Tiger Woods in town trying to win a second straight major, in case you hadn't noticed.
Surely that would qualify, judging by the way fans will react to Woods at the PGA Championship on Bethpage Black, New York's most notorious public golf course. Every round he plays at a major tournament is something of a portable New Year's Eve celebration, revelers packed in shoulder-to-shoulder, shuffling hole to hole, all the while howling for every drive, approach shot, and putt.
In truth, New York has been even more of a home game over the years for Phil Mickelson, going back to the U.S. Open in 2002 at Bethpage, when local golf fans adopted the underdog to Tiger at the time as their guy. Since then, they have treated him as if he grew up in one of the five boroughs rather than southern California.
Ah, but Tiger's epic win at the Masters in April may have tilted the sentimentality scales in his favor.
At the very least, by ending his 11-year major drought and completing a comeback from the rock-bottom lows of scandal and debilitating injury, Tiger has put the national spotlight on Bethpage this week in a way that tournament officials never dreamed when they moved the PGA Championship to the spring from its usual spot in August for the first time since 1949.
Or as PGA of America chief executive Seth Waugh said of the move earlier this week: "We thought it was smart. It looks brilliant now."
Such is the interest level to see if this reborn Tiger can actually win back-to-back majors, and not only climb to within two of Jack Nicklaus' famous record total of 18, but bring front-and-center the seemingly unthinkable possibility of winning all four majors in the same year -- at age 43.
If he somehow pulls it off this week, in some ways it would be fitting. The closest Tiger ever came to a Grand Slam was in 2002, when he claimed The Masters and then that U.S. Open at Bethpage, before getting caught in the worst of a pounding rain-and-wind storm on Saturday at the British Open, wrecking his chance of winning there.
The difference was that Woods was at his most dominant then, winning majors at a rate no one, not even Nicklaus, ever had. And while it was the height of Tiger-mania, that 2002 U.S. Open was indeed the birth of New York's now-famous love affair with Mickelson, as the locals tried to will "Lefty" over the hump in his well-documented quest to win a first major.
They sang "Happy Birthday" at more than a few holes that Saturday, delighting in Mickelson's ever-smiling, thumbs-up reaction to cheers along the way. But it wasn't enough to pull him through, as he finished in second place, three shots back of Woods.
Tiger didn't lack for support, but the over-the-top affection for Mickelson, which only grew when he began winning majors himself in the next few years, drew attention to the obvious contrast between the two biggest names in golf.
Their games were different: Tiger as efficient and machine-like at his best, while Mickelson was the swashbuckling risk-taker, almost always going for the miracle shot from behind a tree somewhere. And their personalities were quite the opposite as well.
Woods acknowledged his fans and their ovations with professional courtesy, but almost never with the joy and appreciation his left-handed rival offered. Only Mickelson spent an inordinate amount of time after every round signing autographs.
And nobody appreciated the differences more than New Yorkers, it seemed, as CBS' Jim Nantz explained on a conference call this week.
"He embodies the spirit of New Yorkers," Nantz said. "He's got that go-for-broke nature. He's hands-on with his fans. It's just very relatable to them. They believe he's one of them. He's a Californian by birth, but he's got a New York esprit de corps."
A long-time national golf writer puts it more bluntly: "Mickelson always made a point of being gracious and appreciative with fans. When Tiger was on top, he was a (bleep) to everyone."
But everybody loves a comeback story, and Tiger, by all accounts, has made an effort to be nicer to people around the sport and connect more with the public. As such, he has softened his image and seemingly won over even more fans by climbing back from the depths of his various injuries and indulgences to reach the top of his sport again.
All of which makes for quite a different atmosphere at Bethpage, all these years later. Oh, Mickelson is still beloved, to be sure. His reputation in New York is so pristine that his shocking act of defiance at the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills in the Hamptons last year, when he famously putted a moving ball on the green, barely left a mark.
Still, the left-hander does seem to be making a point of reaffirming the love affair this week, most notably with a tweet that received plenty of attention, as he added a personal twist to the "I Love New York" slogan you see on t-shirts, bumper stickers, etc.
Instead of a picture of a heart that represents the word "love," Mickelson substituted a silhouette of himself, golf cap and all. He also told reporters that "the people here treat me so well, I feel it's an advantage. If I can get my game sharp, there's a good chance that energy can get me to the finish line."
Mickelson hasn't played well in recent weeks, but he did win at Pebble Beach in February, and he was on the fringe of contention at The Masters. However, a month from turning 49, he is more underdog than ever to Tiger, yet there is no mistaking the sentimentality surrounding the guy with the 15 majors after what happened at Augusta.
As the national golf writer put it, "Even a lot of Tiger-haters like myself have a soft spot for him now. His comeback is nothing short of amazing, even if some of it was self-inflicted. And he's still a rock star. People who wouldn't even know the PGA was being played this week will be locked in to see if he can go 2-for-2."
All eyes are on Bethpage Park. So barring an even more unlikely four days of contention by Mickelson, New York is sure to be all in on Tiger. Winning a second straight major and putting the Grand Slam in play would be a storyline so compelling it feels practically beyond comprehension.
Meanwhile, for sports fans around here beaten to a pulp by disappointment every which way they turn lately, it might even feel like a "W."
Which would be no less of a feat.