The roars were always going to come back at some point because nothing screams major championship golf more than well lubricated fans urging every shot to get in the hole on a Saturday afternoon. Phil Mickelson’s return to form wasn’t nearly as certain, though it gave spectators even more reason to ditch their masks and plead for him to make some history in the PGA Championship.
Their fondness for Mickelson wasn’t enough to keep Phil from being Phil and, true to form, he stumbled on the back nine just when it looked as if he was on his way to a runaway win for the aging. No worries, because he’s still got a one-shot lead and on Sunday there will be even more to scream for.
Though probably not for the people Steve Stricker came upon pounding down vodka lemonades early in the day.
”They keep going with that today, they’re going to have some problems,” the Ryder Cup captain said. ”But it’s good to see them.”
That’s pretty much the sentiment around all sports, where a return to semi-normal reunites players and fans who never realized how much they would miss each other. It’s especially true in a sport where quiet is the order of the day – until a swing is made and it gets real noisy.
Thousands swarmed the fairways and greens of the Ocean Course to get some fresh air and see some golf. They got the added bonus of being able to scream for a 50-year-old they were sure was looking their way behind his big aviator sunglasses.
The pandemic may not be officially over, but things sure look a lot different than the last PGA Championship, played in near silence in San Francisco last August. Not only are the fans back in limited numbers, but they seem determined to make up for lost time.
”You can tell people have been pent up too long,” Stricker said. ”They’re even a little more boisterous than they were before the pandemic If feel like. People are excited to be out and they’re having a good time and they’re drinking, they’re talking, they’re just full of life it looks like.”
The crowds weren’t massive but they were big enough to make a difference. They seemed even bigger as the noise levels mounted just as Mickelson began a run that gave him a 5-shot lead walking off the 10th green.
Every shot brought roars, and every missed putt some groans. They went wild when he made a short putt for par on the ninth hole , and they celebrated just as much when he hit a layup from the junk on the par-5 16th hole.
What better way to celebrate a return to normalcy than watching Mickelson make an improbable run for a major at the age of 50?
Knowing all along that maybe your voice had something to do with his success?
”I’m very appreciative of the way people have been supportive,” Mickelson said after spending more than four hours in the middle of a Phil lovefest.
For some, Mickelson was just a bonus. They came early, hours before he teed off, and they stayed late to watch him steady himself enough to take a one-shot lead into Sunday.
As the libations flowed, they got louder as the day went on.
”It says limited fans but doesn’t feel that way,” Jordan Spieth said. ”Today was pretty fun. It was good to see a really nice crowd out there for teeing off four and a half hours before the leaders. Kind of seemed like I could feed off some of the momentum with fans kind of pushing for more and more birdies.”
That momentum is something Spieth will need if he is to come from seven shots off the lead to contend Sunday. Both Spieth and Rory McIlroy say the return of fans helped them return to the winning circle in recent weeks, and on Sunday the intensity figures to go up yet another notch on both sides of the ropes.
Still, there’s only so much a crowd can do, as evidenced on the 18th hole when Mickelson hit a chip and someone yelled loudly for it to get in the hole.
The ball rolled just by, though it did elicit the loudest collective groan of dismay heard in golf this year.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg