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Fans rally behind Mickelson

THE applause started 22 strides before Phil Mickelson reached the 18th green during his practice round, crescending until he tipped his cap and nodded in appreciation.

No one, least of all Mickelson, seemed to mind that his ball was in a front bunker.

Mickelson isn't from New York, but for the next week, those strangers behind the ropes at Bethpage Black are his new best friends. For his lone practice round on Wednesday, many wore pink shirts and ribbons to show support for Amy Mickelson's fight with breast cancer, shouted encouragement whenever the world's No. 2 player walked past and even sang a day-late verse of "Happy Birthday."

When the US Open gets rolling, Tiger Woods will be the favorite - but Mickelson will be favored by the people.

"I'm putting everything I have into this week, because I don't anticipate being able to play for a little while," Mickelson said. "And the fact that my normal support system, Amy and the kids and so forth, aren't going to make the trip this week, I'm kind of hoping to have that or feel the support to kind of help me through the week."

Mickelson isn't planning to play the British Open, since his wife begins treatment for the recently diagnosed cancer from July 1. After this, he doesn't know when or where he'll play again.

He's not here for appearances sake.

He wants to win, believes he can win, believes he can make his wife's request - to bring her that silver championship trophy - happen.

The weight of her cancer looms, though, surely set to make the tough-enough chore of winning a major even more pronounced.

"Hats off to how he's handled it because certainly it's so hard to do," Woods said. "Everywhere you go people are reminding you of it, and you can't get away from it. And you think that the golf course would be your escape, but it's not. You're surrounded by people wishing you well the entire time. ... You just can't get away from it. It's hard."

Bethpage is hard enough under normal circumstances.

This national championship started with a record 9,086 players sending in entries, eventually getting whittled down through qualifying tournaments and a handful of withdrawals.

At the end, 156 held entries for the US Open.

And now, 155 have the world's No. 1 on their radar. Woods has never shrouded the fact that major championships are the weeks he builds his year - his career, really - around. Jack Nicklaus, he quickly says, is the greatest golfer of all-time, based on Woods' most simple measuring stick.

"He's got 18," Woods said. "I'm at 14."

His quest for major No. 15, one that'll put him three back of Nicklaus on the all-time list, begins with a marquee grouping of reigning major champions, as he'll join Padraig Harrington and Angel Cabrera.



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