Dom Amore: Let’s savor Phil Mickelson’s moments at the Travelers while we can

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As 12:50 p.m. approached, the crowd around the first tee began to surge toward the ropes, lean forward to get a better angle, lift iPhones to get pictures they’ll be able to recognize later.

When the next threesome emerged from the clubhouse, the noise for Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson swelled, one of those moments commonplace at past Travelers Championships, but so sorely missed last year.

There were a few shouts of “let’s go, Paul,” too, for no one wanted Paul Casey to feel unappreciated. Watson, who has won this tournament three times and practically made it a home away from home, will always be a beloved lefthander here.

But Thursday was a day to keep the eyes and iPhones trained on Mickelson, the ranking lefthander in town this week, who turned 51 on Jun 16. His victory at the PGA last month, his sixth major, where he became the oldest ever to win a major, cemented his exalted place in golf history. His like does not come around often, and this is the chance to appreciate him, whatever it says on the leaderboard.

He was not able to duplicate the PGA performance at the U.S. Open, near his hometown last week, and may not do it in Cromwell, for if there is one thing that must be conceded to age, it’s the ability to play at the highest level week after week, or even hole to hole, as his first-round 69 indicated.

But he nevertheless has continued to endear himself to the golf-watching public. At Torrey Pines, he brought out a chair for Jon Rahm’s wife and baby son to watch Rahm finish off the U.S. Open. Mickelson, who has won every major but the U.S. Open, and has been runner-up there six times, took a seat, too, to watch his young friend capture his moment.

Earlier, as Mickelson was struggling through the second round, he spotted his wife, Amy, in the crowd giving him a thumb’s up, his signature gesture. He went over for a hug. The two moments gone viral, a phrase no one ever heard of when he won his first tournaments.

Thursday, he gave the fans following him around the TPC a memory at No. 9, when he sank a 63-foot, 8-inch putt, his longest make of the season, another viral moment.

“To make those long ones like on 9, that long birdie putt, it’s just a bonus,” Mickelson said. “You’re just trying to lag it up there close, and it just felt in. To make it was a nice little boost. I’m playing well, and I have a chance tomorrow to come out and get into the tournament for the weekend, which is exciting.”

Champion golfer. Gentleman. Big lug. And an inspiration to all who long to believe that 50 is the new 40. Is there anything cooler than being Phil Mickelson in this June of 2021? Enjoy it, he certainly is.

“I enjoyed the day,” he said. “I enjoy being around Paul and Bubba, and we had a lot of fun. I had a chance there on the back nine. The back nine is really a good opportunity to shoot 2-, 3-, 4-under par, and I ended up playing 1 over. So I let a good opportunity go after playing the front nine a couple under. I drove the ball well, hit a lot of good shots, and it was very close. Made some good long putts on 9 and 10. I had a fun day.”

His round was topsy-turvy, three birdies, one earned with the long putt, and a bogey on the front nine. He gave a one back on No. 11 when he found the water and took a penalty stroke, and dropped back to even par at 13. Lefty missed about a half-dozen makeable birdie putts along the way, which could haunt him Friday. He birdied 17 to go 1 under, but hit his tee shot behind the scoreboard on 18 and two-putted again for par. He putted 30 times,

“I didn’t score as low as I wanted to but didn’t hurt myself,” Mickelson said. “I need to come out tomorrow and play a good round.”

Mickelson won the Travelers, during its days as the Cannon GHO, in 2001 and 2002. Last year, he started the Travelers with a 63 and 64 to take a lead to Saturday, before fading out of contention with a pair of 71s. He promised the Travelers folks he would be back in ‘21, and he kept his word, flying cross country from San Diego.

As he hit his first tee shot, and began walking up the fairway, the big crowd gave him his due and on a gorgeous afternoon, as he got his due throughout his 5:05 on the course.

“It’s been a tournament I really enjoyed over the years,” Mickelson said. “I skipped it for a long time because it was our kids’ time to take a break in the summer. Now they’re all out and back East and all over the place. It’s been fun for me to come back and play on such a great golf course in front of such great fans.”

Whether he vaults into contention or misses the cut Friday, Mickelson’s mere presence is the thing here and now. Let’s take it all in while we can; it’s rare, and it won’t last forever.

Dom Amore can be reached at damore@courant.com

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