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BOB RYAN

A major turnaround in Mickelson's favor

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. -- The first-time winners of majors since Tiger Woods won at Bethpage two years ago include the likes of Rich Beem and Shaun Micheel, whom no one wielding a pen or microphone ever expects to be interviewing in the guise of big-time champion again.

Ben Curtis? Maybe. Possibly. Tough call, because he does have a proper pedigree (he was the No. 1-ranked amateur at one time). Mike Weir? Always a threat. Jim Furyk? Maybe. Lee Janzen won two, so why couldn't Mr. Hits It Straight?

The sixth first-time winner in the post-Tiger era is the interesting one, and it was neatly summed up by the Hartford Courant's Bruce Berlet, who hit Phil Mickelson with this one yesterday: "Are you the best player only to have won one major?"

It was geared for laughs, of course, and Philsy took it the right way.

"That is such a nice question, so much nicer than the ones in the past," he grinned. "I don't know if I have the answer for you. But it sounds a lot better."

The title of Best Player Never To Have Won A Major (BPNTHWAM) now goes to . . . damned if I know. You might say Sergio Garcia, if it weren't for the fact that he's still only 24, so it's a little too early to label him. Tiger was asked the question, and he wouldn't even bite.

But since that Sunday afternoon two months ago at Augusta National, the answer can no longer be Phil Mickelson, who won the Masters by closing with his third straight 69 to go an impressive 9 under. With that first major out of the way, Mickelson can get on with the rest of his life, both personally and professionally.

Full disclosure: I am a Phil Mickelson Convert, with all stand-back zealotry that converts typically bring to any cause.

For many years I was Mickelson-phobic, and this was despite the fact that I rather liked watching him swing the club. I thought his act in Pinehurst back in '99 was lame. That's when his wife was pregnant with their first child, and he was threatening to walk away from a putt that could win the US Open if he were informed she was about to go into labor. To me, it was simple. If that's the way you feel about being a first-time father, don't play. Stay home. Don't be pulling the Alan Alda bit on the 18th green; just stay home.

From there I went to his walk and his wristwatch -- I know it's an endorsement, but I still hate seeing him wearing the Rolex while he's playing -- and even his visor (I'm a hat man, not a visor man), and, well, if you're looking for more rational reasons to manufacture a dislike, you've come to the wrong place. Anyway, it all added up to me being something other than a Phil Mickelson fan.

But being a man of enormous flexibility, I have changed.

Go Phil!

The thing in Pinehurst never materialized. Amy Mickelson had the first of their three children after that US Open. So I got over that business. And as time went on I began hearing from more and more people that if there was one drop-dead rootable guy on the PGA Tour, it was Mickelson, a phenomenal all-around sports fan who had great respect for the game and who treated his public like so many pieces of gold. Surely you'd have to agree these are good things.

I couldn't have been the only one who noticed, either, because when he won the Masters there was a great outpouring of praise on behalf of a great many people. Mickelson's victory seemed to make a lot of people very happy.

No one signs more autographs on the Tour, or seems to have a better bond with the fans. It's pretty much the case everywhere the big lefty goes, and it is most certainly true here at Shinnecock Hills, where he was reveling in the attention yesterday.

He says he was motivated long ago by Arnold Palmer, still the all-time most popular golfer.

"I'll tell you why," he said. "At the 1994 US Open at Oakmont, I saw him come out of the volunteer tent after spending an hour and a half signing autographs. His comment was that `you guys spent hours on end helping out with this event, helping it run smoothly and yet you don't get a chance to come see any golf at all. I wanted to come here and let you know how much we appreciate it.' I thought that was what professional golf should be, the way professionals should handle themselves, the way he treated people with respect and was always thoughtful toward others.

"So I've used him as a role model. I do my best. I'm not able to do it always, but I do my best to show the same respect that he does and emulate what he has done."

He's done it enough that people root hard for him at every tour stop. His victory in the Masters was as well-received as any in memory.

Now the obvious trick is to repeat those four rounds of quality golf at subsequent majors.

"I'm looking big picture," he said. "I want to try to build on the Masters victory. It was a wonderful, exciting moment for me, and I don't want it to be the pinnacle per se, I want it to be a kind of steppingstone to playing at that level more often in majors and having more chances because I've enjoyed it so much that I'm hoping to do it some more."

Phil Mickelson turns 34 today. It's the first birthday he's spent as a reigning champion of a major. Excuse me, but I've got to run out and get a card for My Man Phil.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com. 

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