BILL DWYRE

Family still comes first to Phil Mickelson

He flies cross-country to see his daughter's eighth-grade graduation, then takes a red-eye back to the U.S. Open, where he shoots a 67.

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ARDMORE, Pa. — Phil Mickelson, who has already wrapped up the father-of-the-year title, was the leader in the clubhouse after the rainy first day of the U.S. Open here Thursday.

It was storybook stuff. The golf wasn't bad, either.

Mickelson, for the better part of the last two decades among the top golfers in the world, has won four major championships, but never a U.S. Open. Winning one would round out a legacy of his three Masters and one PGA title.

Not that he hasn't been close. He has finished second an incredible five times, the first in 1999 at Pinehurst. Many intertwining elements of Mickelson, the U.S. Open and the events leading to Thursday's three-under-par 67 begin there.

He had turned 29 the day before the tournament started. He had yet to win any of his major titles. He had walked the fairways at Pinehurst with a pager in his pocket. His pregnant wife, Amy, was home in Arizona. They had an agreement. The moment she started labor with their first child, she would put in a secret code and he would come.

Driver in hand on the first tee, he would stop and come. Standing over a two-foot birdie putt, he would stop and come. He said there would be many more U.S. Opens and no more first-borns.

The people who had come to dislike Mickelson, who thought he was too good or too phony or smiled too much or signed too many autographs, hated that. It was too human, too correct, too un-jock-like. To many, our athletes are supposed to put it all on the line, be all blood and guts, leave it all on their respective fields and have their little family lives out of our sight.

Amy Mickelson started contractions at some point in the third round of that '99 Open. The page never came. She reneged on the deal, cried tears about the fates that had the labor beginning when her husband was leading the U.S. Open. Then she got a doctor to give her something to slow the labor.

She watched on a couch at home, propped up on a pillow, as Payne Stewart rolled in a long putt on the final hole to beat her husband by a shot. Then she watched Stewart do a strange thing, something that is now golfing lore and has begun to come full circle with the events of Thursday at Merion Golf Club here.

After the putt dropped, Stewart walked to Mickelson, took his face in his hands and, eye to eye, inches away, told Mickelson that it was OK, that he would win his U.S. Open someday, that what he was about to experience with the birth of his first child was much bigger.

Four months later, Stewart was dead, his private plane crashing after flying for hours on instruments after all aboard had succumbed to a lack of oxygen. Among those most quoted in the aftermath was Mickelson.

The U.S. Open has haunted the left-hander from Rancho Santa Fe. Amid those second places was his implosion at Winged Foot in 2006. All he had to do was par his way home, but the ever-gambling Mickelson dropped one in a garbage can, then hit a sponsor's tent and a tree en route to a double bogey on the final hole and a victory for Geoff Ogilvy.

So, when he flew home to San Diego from here to attend an eighth-grade graduation ceremony Wednesday night and didn't get back on a private jet until about 3:30 a.m. Thursday, or 3 hours 41 minutes before his scheduled tee time, eyebrows were raised. Was this guy really serious about winning the U.S. Open?

The graduation was for his 13-year-old daughter, Amanda, born the day after the '99 U.S. Open, with her father there to see. Wednesday night, she was one of four commencement speakers, with her father there to see.

"She did a great job," Mickelson said Thursday.

So did Amanda's dad.

He said he got a few hours sleep on the plane, another hour or so when he arrived, and stole yet another hour when heavy rain brought a 3 1/2-hour delay. On the course, he bogeyed his first hole, the 11th, then birdied four others, while making two incredible par saves on Nos. 5 and 6.

"Those are the momentum builders," Mickelson said.

He said Amanda told him he needn't do all this running around for her, that she understood it is the U.S. Open and is greatly important to him. He told her something else was more important.

"I told her I want to be there," he said. "I don't want to miss that. I don't want to miss her speech. I don't want to miss her graduation."

For Mickelson, three rounds remain in the annual roughest test of golf and mental stamina in the sport. He has miles to go and mountains to climb. But were he to win Sunday, were Payne Stewart to reach out of the clouds, grab him by the face and say I told you so, it would be quite a moment. It would also be Mickelson's 43rd birthday.

And Father's Day.

Like we said, storybook stuff.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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