ARDMORE, Pa. – As Phil Mickelson stood at the 16th tee at Merion Golf Club Thursday morning, his shirt was black, his score was green, but the sky was charcoal.
By the time he got to the green 430 yards away however, charcoal is the color that took priority. With authority, an air horn at 8:36 a.m. signaled that play was being halted in the first round of the 113th U.S. Open, so Mickelson and 59 others stopped where they were on the course and headed for safety.
Good thing, too, because within 40 minutes, rain came pouring down and lightning rocked this area on the outskirts of Philadelphia.
As a matter of precaution, fans paraded toward the exits. Godspeed.
As a sign of the times, media members took out cellphones to tweet photos of rain pouring off the media tent roof. Good God, go figure.
And so the beat goes on for a weather-plagued U.S. Open that simply is struggling to find any sort of rhythm. With six threesomes in the morning wave having not even teed off and with Tiger Woods and 77 others in the afternoon parade wondering if they’ll have the chance to play Thursday, this celebrated return to Merion keeps taking haymakers from Mother Nature.
One day earlier, USGA officials Mike Davis and Tom O’Toole had used the word “magical” four times to describe Merion. Well, we have seemingly reached the point where a heavy dose of magic is going to be needed to turn this thing around. More than 6 inches of rain had fallen in the days before this championship began and with two potent storm cells on track to hit this area Thursday, you can understand why the mood is as black as the shirt Mickelson wore to hit his opening tee shot.
It was 11 minutes past 7 o’ clock when the left-hander rifled an iron shot into the heart of the fairway at the 367-yard, par-4 11th. That’s right, the 11th was Mickelson’s first hole, as the two-tee start here at Merion offers that slice of quirkiness, but the fact that the lefthander was on time was a story in itself.
He had decided weeks earlier that he was going to attend his daughter’s eighth-grade graduation ceremony the Wednesday of U.S. Open week. So with rain pounding the Greater Philadelphia area Monday, Mickelson flew to California, practiced at home Tuesday, attended Amanda’s graduation Wednesday, and hopped into his jet in the evening. Touch-down in Philadelphia was reported to have occurred shortly before 4:30 a.m. and within an hour Mickelson was at Merion to being his prep for his starting assignment.
Now as if that weren’t unconventional enough, Mickelson took things a step further, arriving at the 11th tee with five wedges and no driver in his bag. Curious, perhaps, except when it comes to Mickelson, it’s not. He once won a Masters carrying two drivers and another time struggled at a U.S. Open cut playing without one.
But unlike media folks taking photos of rain falling, there is a method to Mickelson’s madness and though he played just five holes before the rain poured down, the left-hander showed how crucial it was to be able to handle shots out of rough that is deep, wet, and gnarly.
Having three-putted from 15 feet at the 11th, Mickelson drove it poorly at No. 12, his ball hooking low around a tree and coming to rest in ankle-high rough. Somehow, Mickelson got his ball onto the green from about 150 yards, then two-putted from 35 feet. He made an 8-foot birdie at the 115-yard 13th, made par at 14 and 15 and was chased from the course by the horn before trying a lengthy birdie putt at 16.
With a green “E” next to his name, Mickelson was not off to the sort of start that had Ian Poulter (birdie, birdie, birdie), Nicolas Colsaerts, Tim Clark, Charl Schwartzel and Charley Hoffman (each of them 2 under) all smiling, but nothing the left-hander had done made you think that he was battling a serious case of sleep deprivation.
Then again, think about it. One can only imagine that Mickelson’s jet is equipped with a comfortable bed. We’re not talking about a guy who was sitting in the middle seat of Row 47 between two overweight customers on a commercial red-eye here.
Not that Mickelson didn’t witness a bit of the discomfort that is never far away at Merion. His good friend, Keegan Bradley, was alongside for the early-morning trip and struggling mightily. Unfortunately for him, you can consider Bradley Exhibit A to what happens if you miss the fairway at Merion. He was wide right by about 3 feet at the 11th, had to hack it out 20 yards and made bogey. The former PGA champion did slip home a 10-footer for birdie at the 13th, but after making par at 14 and 15, Bradley was again just right of a fairway, this time at the iconic “Quarry Hole” 16th. Unlike at the 11th, however, he tried to advance this one and paid dearly for it. Failing to catch his ball cleanly, Bradley landed in a bush smack in the middle of the quarry short of the green. After taking an unplayable lie, Bradley hit his fourth shot onto the green and left the course minutes later with a miserable taste in his mouth – it had all the trappings of Bradley’s first double-bogey.
On the one hand, ouch.
But on the other, it could be worse. Roger Tambellini, who was in the first group off of No. 1 at 6:45, had three doubles in six holes.
Might want to remind him of all the pre-championship hype about Merion being such a pushover.
She just doesn’t pack as much punch as Mother Nature.