Tuesday, September 06, 2005 | The Padres are in first place, no matter how meekly, the Chargers are about to open defense of their AFC West title, with no less of a goal than the Super Bowl, and San Diego State football is still climbing out of a sinkhole coach Tom Craft inherited, despite the lopsided loss Saturday night to UCLA.

These are pretty good times for San Diegans to follow their athletes.

And did you notice last month that Reggie Bush, the USC running back and Heisman Trophy finalist from Helix High in La Mesa, and Phil Mickelson, the pro golfer from San Diego, were on back-to-back covers of Sports Illustrated the weeks of Aug. 15 and 22?

But with all apologies to our football and baseball stars, there is no San Diego athlete we must share with the world more than Mickelson. One of the story lines of his win at the PGA Championship last month was theorizing how a Southern California kid became so popular with golf fans, especially in gritty New Jersey during the PGA at the famed Baltusrol Golf Course.

Only San Diegans Felix Sanchez, the 2004 Olympic gold medalist in the 400 hurdles, and Meb Keflezighi, the 2004 Olympic silver medalist in the marathon, could challenge Mickelson for worldwide recognition in an international sport. But the attention track and field athletes attract rises and falls with the quadrennial Olympic years.

So how did this kid from University of San Diego High School become so popular? Easy. He has a knack, one that can’t be manufactured, for connecting with people.

A golf fan pictures Mickelson interacting with fans by bumping knuckles – today’s hip-hop athlete handshake – as he makes his way from the green to the next tee, as he did with the gallery at Baltusrol.

If you picture Tiger Woods, the biggest name in golf but arguably not as beloved as Mickelson, interacting with fans, it’s Woods angrily pointing his driver at a fan and shouting at a marshal to remove the offender from the course for the crime of clicking his camera.

Mickelson possesses in him a little of Arnold Palmer hitching up his pants as he pulls off remarkable shots, although Phil dresses too smartly to resemble those black-and-white images of Palmer from the 1950s and 1960s that galvanized Arnie’s Army for decades.

Consider this statistic: At the PGA Championship, Mickelson made only 32 pars out of 72 holes. That’s 40 holes of up-and-down golf – birdies, eagles, bogeys and double bogeys. If you’re following Mickelson on the course or on TV, something always is happening. And you’re empathizing with him.

Steve Elkington, who tied for second, had 49 pars. Woods, more methodical now than earlier in his career, had 43 pars.

Put simply, Mickelson is more fun to watch. During one stretch, Mickelson recorded a spectacular eagle only to follow with a double bogey on the next hole. He played the last 45 holes in 4-over par, but he survived to win.

Not long ago Greg Norman would create similar drama down the stretch, but Norman would break your heart with a final collapse. Phil saved himself with heart thumping birdie putts to win on the 72nd holes at both the Masters and at the PGA.

And when the day is done, Mickelson looks the golf fan in the eye – or TV camera – to say thank you for the fan support, and when he says it you believe he’s speaking from the heart rather than his image-minded contract obligations that satisfy a sponsor.

Mickelson serves unofficially as an ambassador for San Diego. People with Mickelson on Tour say it’s uncanny that no matter where Phil plays, when he stops to sign autographs people will call out, “I love San Diego,” or “I just played Torrey Pines, it’s awesome,” or “How are the Chargers going to do this year?”

“We went into a couple of sports equipment stores and asked if they had heard of Darren Bennett,” said Brittany Brees. “They all said he’s great; he made it to America.”

At a sports equipment store in Australia, Great Britain or much of Europe, Japan and other parts of developed Asia and in South Africa, a golf fan knows Mickelson’s name. They can imagine him hitching up his pants as he makes his way through the gallery, bumping knuckles with fans.

Tom Shanahan has been writing about San Diego athletes at the professional, collegiate and high school levels for 27 years. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions (www.sdhoc.com). You can e-mail him at

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