ARDMORE, Pa. -- All those pretournament predictions about the finest players in the world making a mockery of venerable and seemingly vulnerable Merion Golf Club ended in a hurry after play in the storm-shortened first round of the 113th U.S. Open was finally halted in near darkness Thursday evening with half the field still on the course.
Instead of all those birdies splashing down into water-logged cups all around, bogeys and other even more frazzling adventures became the norm on a day when frequent flyer Phil Mickelson also demonstrated that a little jet lag from his overnight flight from California actually had been beneficial. With a 3-under-par 67, he soared into the clubhouse lead following a 3 1/2-hour morning weather delay.
Merion more than held its own on this day, with only two players — Mickelson and Belgian Nicolas Colsaerts (69) — breaking par among the 78 who finished 18 holes despite soft, receptive greens after the already saturated course was socked with another inch of morning rain. There also was a 45-minute storm delay in the evening, and the rest of the field will return at 7:15 a.m. Friday to finish the first round, including Englishman Luke Donald, who is at 4-under after 13 holes.
No. 1 ranked Tiger Woods didn’t start until 4:48 p.m. in a group that included No. 2 Rory McIlroy and No. 3 Masters champion Adam Scott. They completed five holes before another 45-minute weather delay cleared the course at 6:10 p.m.
On his second shot out of the rough at No. 15, Woods grimaced after hitting his 5-wood to the back fringe, then shook his left wrist as he walked away. There was more pain out of the rough at No. 11, and when he walked off the course without completing the hole when play finally was halted, he was at 2-over through 10 holes. Scott was at 3-under through 11, while McIlroy was even through 11.
Mickelson won’t have to play until Friday afternoon, allowing him to get some much-needed rest before he has to perform again on a course that clearly justified its selection as a bonafide Open venue, even at a relatively short 7,000 yards.
Mickelson had flown on his own private jet back to his home in the San Diego suburbs Monday to practice under ideal conditions for two days, and, more importantly, to attend the eighth-grade graduation Wednesday of his 14-year-old daughter, Amanda. He got back on the plane at 8 p.m. in California on Wednesday, then touched down in Philadelphia at about 3:30 a.m. Thursday, less than four hours before his 7:11 a.m. first-round tee time.
He said he was able to nap on the plane, get an hour of sleep once he arrived and then snoozed for another hour in the clubhouse during the morning delay. After his first eight holes, he snacked on peanut butter and an energy drink “just to keep me sharp,” he said. “I might have used a little caffeine booster at the turn. … I just wanted to make sure I had enough energy.”
It actually started badly for Mickelson, a four-time major champion seeking his first Open title. He had a three-putt bogey on his first hole — the 367-yard 11th — but he and longtime caddie Jim “Bones” Mackay took that as a positive sign.
“I’ve had some of the best rounds of my career that have started with a bogey,” Mickelson said. “We just kind of looked at each other and laughed and said great rounds have started with bogey. That happened to be the last one I made.”
He certainly flirted with disaster several times on his back nine, particularly at the 504-yard fifth, where his tee shot nearly landed in a stream down the left side. With an awkward side-hill stance on the long par-4, he advanced his second shot up the fairway, hit a sand wedge from 100 yards out to within 12 feet and made the par-saving putt. At the 487-yard sixth, he landed in a greenside bunker, blasted to seven feet and made that putt as well.
“Those two par putts, those are the momentum-builders that are important in the rounds at the U.S. Open,” he said. “They actually give you more of a boost than the birdies do.”
In all he had four birdies, including a breaking 30-foot putt at No. 1 on his back nine, and was off to his best Open start since a first-round 69 in 2009, when he tied for second at Bethpage Black. Mickelson has nine top-10 Open finishes in his career, including a solo second in 1999, the day before Amanda was born. Mickelson had talked about dropping out that year if his wife, Amy, had gone into labor but was able to finish the tournament and fly back to California in time for the birth.
Mickelson said his flight back to Philadelphia might have helped his preparation for a tournament he wants to win more than any other.
“I think that mental preparation is every bit as important as physical,” he said, “and I was able to take the time on the plane to read my notes, study, relive the golf course, go through how I was going to play each hole, where the pins were, where I wanted to miss it, where I wanted to be, study the green charts. It gave me a great few hours to study my notes and get mentally prepared.”
And the graduation?
“Four kids spoke, and she was one,” he said. “She did a great job, and she even quoted Ron Burgundy, so it was funny. And I was really glad I was there. … She told me, ‘Stay, it’s the U.S. Open.’ I told her I want to be there. I don’t want to miss that. She spent nine years at that school, and she’s worked very hard. I’m very proud of her.”