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The People's Champ eyes an Open title

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland (AP) — Phil Mickelson rolled in an 18-foot birdie putt on the final hole of practice — oh, how he'd love to be in that same position for a win at the British Open come Sunday — then headed off to take care of his other duties.

"Give me about 10 or 15 minutes," the People's Champion shouted toward the fans clamoring for his autograph. "I'll be right over there, behind the stands, to sign for you."

After collecting his valuables and taking a brief respite in the St. Andrews clubhouse, Mickelson popped out on cue behind a barrier along Golf Place.

He worked up and down the line, looking everyone in the eye as he signed. He bantered with the crowd. He put his signature on everything from visors to programs to flags. The only time he balked was when someone put forward a ball to sign — a no-no for Mickelson, who, like many athletes, knows that sort of keepsake will usually make its way straight to eBay.

"No balls. I don't sign balls," Mickelson said politely. "Anything else I can get for you?"

Some may believe this is all an act. Some may believe that Mickelson sets aside ample time for signing at every tournament merely to improve his image, not because he feels any genuine connection with the fans.

Just try telling that to those people who walked away with an autograph and a sense that he really cares about them. Just listen to the roars if Mickelson walks toward the 18th green with a chance to claim the claret jug and add a fifth major title to an already impressive resume.

"Did you get Phil?" a British woman shouted to her son, who'd snared a prime spot at the front of railing.

"Yes, I got him," he replied.

"Ohhhh, brilliant," she said, breaking into a relieved grin.

Mickelson said he feels a "spiritual" connection with St. Andrews, the birthplace of golf and a course that he feels gives him a real shot at winning his first British Open title, with its wide-open spaces that allow one to pull out the driver all around the course.

Indeed, there's nothing he loves better than just gripping and ripping, even if it means throwing caution to that persistent wind sweeping in off St. Andrews Bay.

"I expect to play well here, I really do," Mickelson said Tuesday. "I expect to be in contention."

The chance to share triumphs with his fans — and, yes, even the foibles — are just as important, he added, even if some in the media and maybe even a fellow golfer or two might be skeptical of his motives.

"I've been very fortunate to have support from fans," Mickelson said. "It's meant a lot to me over the course of my career. It's made it fun to go to the golf course, and it's made it fun to interact with people, and it's made it fun to spend time after rounds signing autographs and interacting.

"That interpersonal relationship that golf provides — the kind many other sports don't, being in a stadium setting — is really one of our greatest assets in this sport. The ability to play pro-ams and interact with regular amateur golfers. The ability to have personal contact with fans after the round or beforehand. All that really makes the game of golf great."

Of course, greatness inside the ropes is defined by major titles. For Mickelson, who has captured three green jackets at Augusta along with a PGA Championship, there would be no better place to win another than this place.

"A career just doesn't feel complete unless you've won here at St. Andrews," Mickelson said. "I think all the players feel the same way."

It would be quite a feat to top what happened in April, when Lefty locked up another Masters titles and was greeted just off the 18th green by his wife Amy, who's been battling breast cancer. Their touching embrace was a striking contrast to Tiger Woods' sordid personal life, rocked by reports of affairs with numerous women.

Mickelson followed up with another strong showing at the U.S. Open, winding up three strokes behind Graeme McDowell.

Now, it's on to St. Andrews, where Mickelson will get another shot at claiming the third leg of a career Grand Slam, an accomplishment that would truly push him into a class as one of the greats of the game. He's also got a chance to snare the No. 1 spot in the world rankings, which has belonged to Woods for more than five years.

While Mickelson brushed off having any extra motivation to supplant his longtime rival in the top position, he did concede it would mean a lot to see his name at the head of the list for the first time in his career.

"Oh, no, I care," he said. "If I were to accomplish that in my career — and I have some chances here — it would be something. Whether it was for one week or a month or a year, however long, just to be able to say you did it, especially in Tiger's era, it would be incredible."

Mickelson turned 40 last month, so he might have more prime years behind him than in front of him. He also knows that Woods' inconsistent play since returning from five months off to deal with the sex scandal isn't likely to last much longer.

"I know that my window of opportunity is small because Tiger is going to start playing some of his better golf here soon, so I've got to get my butt in gear," he said. "I'm going to try hard to do that this week."

No matter how he plays, though, Mickelson will set aside some time for his pen.

His fans are sure to be waiting.