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A pro who’s great for his ams

The weather outside was frightful for Friday’s Bob Hope Chrysler Classic golf tournament. But Phil Mickelson made the day delightful for three average Joes.

Actually, their names were Bill Shepard, Dan Kirchoefer and Steven Beahm, each of whom paid thousands of dollars to play in this pro-am event. And each of whom got lucky by landing a random placement in Mickelson’s foursome Friday, at the Classic Course in Thousand Palms.

Mickelson might make bad decisions that cost him U.S. Open titles. And he might perform like a klutz sometimes at the Ryder Cup. But it is hard to argue that he is not a genuinely decent guy, who goes out of his way to be as nice to the maid as he is to a CEO.

“I played with him here once before, a year or so back,” said Shepard, a Chrysler dealer from Virginia Beach, Va. “So when we walk up to the first tee, he shakes my hand and calls me by my first name. And before long, he is asking about my family and remembering some business stuff we talked about the last time.

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“He is amazing. He is all about you.”

The conditions were such that being warm and fuzzy could not come easily. Winds whipped around this course, and the temperature dipped into the 40s, making it, for some, a stocking-cap-and-earmuff day.

Mickelson, dressed in black on a day of gray, shot a three-under-par 69, leaving him tied for 41st with two rounds to go in this 90-hole event. He will be at Bermuda Dunes today -- the event is played on four courses, including La Quinta and the Palmer Course at PGA West -- and return to the Classic for Sunday’s final round, when the pros play alone after four days of sharing the fairways with amateurs and celebrities. That is, if Mickelson makes the cut, which takes place after today’s round and last year was at seven under, exactly where Mickelson stood Friday after his rounds of 70-70-69.

He has won this tournament twice, in 2002 and ’04, and holds the No. 4 world ranking. He has won two Masters and one PGA and, at 36, can stand as strong proof that Leo Durocher was wrong. Nice guys don’t always finish last.

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“He said more ‘hi’s’ to more regular people today than anybody of his stature I’ve ever seen,” Shepard said. “He greeted scorekeepers and starters and marshals. Got to ‘em all.

“We’ll be out there tomorrow, playing in another group, and we’ll come across his group coming off a green, and he’ll be there, calling all of us by our first names.”

Asked afterward how he can do that, actually remember names and place them with faces he hasn’t seen in years, Michelson said, “Well, I’m not sure. I guess they are just easy guys to remember and fun to play with.”

While his approach to the fans and public comes naturally, Mickelson also understands public relations, unlike so many of his peers in other sports.

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“I hope they enjoy the experience here,” he said, “because the thing about the game of golf is that we can have that type of intimacy between a fan and a player that a normal sport doesn’t have. You can’t compete with an NBA player on the same floor when they are playing.

“This can be a real positive, but if we as players don’t support it well, it can be a negative.”

Mickelson drove the ball beautifully all day. He hit nearly every green in regulation, or less, except Nos. 10 and 17, and he saved his par on 10. On the fourth hole, a par-five, 568-yard headache, he hit a five-wood 245 yards on his second shot to within 15 feet and made the putt for an eagle that got him to four under for the day. But on a day spent watching makable birdie putts slide past the hole, he never lost touch with his playing partners. Frequently, these guys are treated by the pros, especially in the middle of a bad round, like a cameraman who just clicked in mid-backswing.

Not Mickelson. He was patient with the slow play, followed some of the most outrageous shanks with a smile and some quiet advice, and had a pat on back for skulled shots that somehow bounced along and wiggled onto the green. And when it was over and he was saying goodbye to his group, he told Shepard, for all to hear, what a great shot he had hit into 18, where he barely missed a birdie putt.

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“Shot of the year, Bill,” Mickelson said. “Of course, the year is still young.”

Shepard grinned like a 10-year-old on Christmas morning.

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Bill Dwyre can be reached at bill.dwyre@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Dwyre, go to latimes.com/dwyre.

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