Phil Mickelson all but conceded here yesterday that he will not be at next month's Open Championship at Turnberry. In fact, the world No 2 is not sure when or where the golf world will next see him after this week. As his wife, Amy, prepares for breast cancer surgery, life is a nightmare of uncertainties for the Mickelsons. All he knows, all they know, is that he will be teeing up here today in the 111th US Open. And that the experience is likely to be the most emotional moment of his career so far.
Here's how it goes: New York loves Phil, Phil loves New York, and the rest are mere gooseberries. If golf did follow obvious scripts (and yes, sometimes it seems to) the plot this week would be very simple. Mickelson would win his first US Open and take a fourth major back to California. "Amy's left me a number of little notes, texts, cards, hints, that she would like to have a silver trophy in her hospital room," said Mickelson as he arrived at last at Bethpage yesterday, having spent Monday and Tuesday at home. "So I'm going to try to accommodate that."
If only it were that simple and if only the will of the fans here would be enough to help the man of the New York people to triumph on the course of the New York people. "Lefty's Legion" would bring the house down and the game would be blessed with one of its most memorable atmospheres. Of course, Mickelson has everything a professional possibly needs to effect such a memorable eventuality: the power, the pedigree, the form.
Indeed, when one surveys the season in which he has enjoyed two victories and come as close as he ever has to overhauling Tiger Woods at the top of the rankings, then the 20-1 on offer seems almost insulting. But those cold-hearted bookies have factored the emotion of the individual and the occasion into their calculations. Surely it will all be too much for him? On Tuesday, Woods pointed out that such attention can indeed be all- consuming. "Everywhere you go people are reminding you of it," he said. "You think the golf course would be your escape – but it's not. You just can't away from it."
"Possibly," said Mickelson when this was put to him. "Or it could be that that support helps me through the emotion when I'm on the course. I'm not sure, I'm not sure. I'm going to just do the best I can. I feel like my game is ready, but you just never know. I feel like emotionally I'm better. But you just never know. So we'll play it by ear, day by day. It will be a fun week. I'm putting everything I have into this week, because I don't anticipate being able to play for a little while."
His absence will inevitably include the Open in four weeks' time, which comes just a fortnight after his wife's scheduled surgery. "Most likely, yeah" admitted Mickelson. "I would say August is probably the earliest [he will return]. But we won't know our treatment schedule after surgery until we have some other tests done. But most likely, yeah." Thus, it will be the first Open Championship he will miss in 15 years and for the second year running the British major will be minus one of its star attractions.
Of course, the Open's loss last year was very much the US Open's gain as a famously "one-legged" Woods ground and grimaced his way to what he described as "probably my best-ever victory". The vast majority of the experts here – that is, those tipping with their heads and not their hearts – are anticipating Woods becoming the first golfer in 20 years to retain his title and, indeed, "the case for" is overwhelming. The prediction is that if he drives like he did in winning the PGA Memorial two weeks ago, then he wins. In fact, he wins by a street.
As he tries to become the first European winner in 39 years, Paul Casey is just one of Woods' rivals who will fancy their own chances, but deep down each of them knows the magnitude of the challenge if he is back to anywhere near his best. He strode out to glory at Bethpage in 2002 and just happened to withstand the charge of Mickelson and the energy of the galleries on that occasion. In truth, Bethpage Black is a brutal examination that challenges every aspect of the game and the psyche. It is no place for sentiment.
Saying that, there is at least one statistic the Tiger doubters can cling to. Despite being more than 7,400 yards, Bethpage is a par 70 and Woods has only won 11.8 per cent of the majors he has competed in on par-70 courses. The word "only" can be used in this regard because of his major strike rate on par-72 layouts. That happens to be an incredible 47.6 per cent.
Is any of this relevant here? Probably not. For starters, Woods has won the last six events he has played on par-70s and the eye-straining par-fours here play into those powerful hands of his. Consider that at this public course there are more par-fours longer than 500 yards than there are shorter than 400 yards and the necessity for length becomes apparent.
But not any old length. Accuracy will, as always in the US Open, be as vital as distance. There are two cuts of rough and the deeper stuff happens to be, as Ian Poulter eloquently puts it, "minging". Expects some high numbers to be racked up in the cabbage. But expect more than anything, the cheers to ring out for Mickelson. This is destined to be his US Open. Win or lose.
Battle in Bethpage: Three who can tame Tiger
Geoff Ogilvy (Australia)
World ranking: 4
Best US Open: 1st (2006)
Has already won a US Open in New York (Winged Foot, three years ago) and has all that it takes to prevail again at Bethpage. Has two titles already this season and has yet to miss a cut. The tougher the better for this cool Aussie.
Best price: 20-1 (William Hill)
Paul Casey (England)
World ranking: 3
Best US Open: T10 (2007)
Has won more money than anybody else this season as well as collecting more ranking points. Seemingly has the perfect game for this brutal test and the very least he should be chasing is a first top-five in a major.
Best price: 25-1 (Tote)
Sean O'Hair (United States)
World ranking: 13
Best US Open: T26 (2006)
With a win at Quail Hollow, this has been a breakthrough year for the young American and he has an obvious chance. Is long enough, accurate enough and putts well enough. His big-time temperament, however, must be taken on trust.
Best price: 50-1 (Ladbrokes)
First round: Selected tee-off times
12.55pm R Allenby (Aus), J Leonard, I Poulter (Eng).
12.55pm P Casey (Eng), G Ogilvy (Aus), J Furyk.
1.06pm A Cabrera (Arg), T Woods, P Harrington (Irl).
1.28pm D Erdy, L Westwood (Eng), Z Johnson.
6.03pm D Clarke (N Irl), D Duval (US), D Toms.
6.14pm R McIlroy (N Irl), A Kim, D Johnson.
6.25pm S Garcia (Sp), A Scott (Aus), C Villegas (Col).
6.36pm J Rose (Eng), R Fisher (Eng), S O'Hair.
6.36pm E Els (SA), R Goosen (SA), P Mickelson.
* Starting on 10th; (US unless stated)