ARDMORE, Pa. – Confident as they were that the process had been handled properly and the correct decision had been employed, rules officials gathered with Steve Stricker before any scorecard was signed.
Though he had birdied two of his last three holes to shoot 1-over 71 in the opening round of the U.S. Open, Stricker knew what was at question: his penalty drop at the par-3 third, which had been his 11th hole. Stricker had made a double bogey, which included a one-stroke penalty for an unplayable lie. Tom O’Toole, chairman of the USGA’s Championship Committee, had received the dreaded “call from a viewer,” so the motor cart had been revved up.
“In light of other things this year, I just wanted to come down and review (the situation),” O’Toole said.
O’Toole’s reference was clear. Possible rules infractions called in by TV viewers have led to a number of controversies, most notably with Tiger Woods at the Masters, and officials have naturally become conscious of the landscape. In Stricker’s case, his tee shot was wide left of the 256-yard, par-3 third; the ball came to rest under a tree, and his stance would have forced him to stand inside a bunker.
But two rules officials had deemed the ball to have been outside the bunker, so after he chose to take an unplayable, Striker put ball in hand and scoped out the area wider left of the bunker. Though the viewer questioned that Stricker walked back and forth and seemingly was attempting to improve his lie, O’Toole and his peers were convinced there was no intent. In fact, O’Toole said, “he didn’t even drop it where he had walked.”
Stricker lofted the next shot, his third, onto the green, but two-putted for a double. He was 2 over at the time, lost another at the par-4 sixth, yet salvaged something of his round with birdies at Nos. 8 and 10.
And getting official confirmation that his score wasn’t going to go higher made him feel even better.
Later, O’Toole was kept busy when some emails and phone calls were received to suggest that Adam Scott had grounded his club in a hazard before playing his second shot at the par-4 fifth.
But walking rules official Reed Mackenzie told O’Toole that he did not think Scott grounded his club, an assertion with which the player agreed.
“After review, we determined that there was no breach of the rule,” said Joe Goode, managing director of communications.
Good news for Scott, whose lone bogey in the 11 holes he played came at that fifth hole. It was more than offset by four birdies, including the 11th. At 3 under, the Masters champ left the course just one off Luke Donald’s clubhouse lead.
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HANGING TOUGH: Who said this course was going to give up so many low scores?
As the players exited the scoring trailers, none, including Phil Mickelson, was jumping up and down with glee.
Every one of them had just experienced a Merion that was wet, soft and very difficult.
“It’s playing very long,” Hunter Mahan said after a first-round 72. “Yeah, it’s challenging. I mean, the pins are tough. It’s hard to hit it really close. You have to make some long putts.”
Mahan believed that Merion was set up with the assistance of Mother Nature as a bombers’ course, because some of the par 4s played so long.
Bubba Watson, a long hitter, agrees that length was a benefit. But he decided not to try to overpower the golf course while shooting a 1-over, 71.
“Well, (Nicolas) Colsaerts played good, and Dustin (Johnson). They hit drivers in a lot of spots I didn’t; I was trying to play safe,” Watson said. “One over is not a bad score for me and Dustin, but Colsaerts shot 1 under.”
Watson hit driver on five holes and only one on the back nine, the long 521-yard, par-4 18th.
“I think the golf course is right around where I thought it was going to be,” Watson said. “Not too many low scores. I think anything under par is going to be an unbelievable score today.”
For the record, the morning wave recorded only two rounds under par, Phil Mickelson’s 67 and Colsaerts’ 69.
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LONG ROAD BACK: Appearances in major championships had become old hat to Paul Casey.
Since turning professional in 2000, the Englishman had played in 38 majors. But the dynamic changed because of injuries, the most recent one to his shoulder, and a game that became less then stellar.
Casey withdrew from the U.S. Open last year, then found himself watching the Masters on television and not making the trip up Magnolia Lane this year.
At the same time, Casey dropped in the world rankings like the proverbial hot potato.
World No. 3 in the middle of the 2009 season, Casey stayed comfortably in the top 25 until the Florida swing in 2012, when he dropped out. By the end of the year, he had fallen to 118; he started this week 162nd.
With all that being said, Casey played brilliantly at Walton Heath in the 36-hole sectional qualifier. His 74-64 last month easily put him in the field.
“Game feels great,” Casey said when explaining his first-round, 3-over 73. “The only thing that’s been lacking recently is making the putts. And when I’ve been making the putts, then that’s been the 64 at Walton Heath or 66 last week, whatever it was, final round in Sweden. Clearly everything is right there. It’s just that final little sort of – final little something.”
Casey’s right big toe still gives him trouble. It’s not enough to force the Englishman off the Tour but likely will need surgery down the road.
For now, Casey is focusing on building upon the momentum he gained in qualifying for this week’s U.S. Open.
“Today was a wonderful round of golf, just missed that little something,” Casey said. “I did bury myself in a couple of bunkers which were poor shots admittedly, so I felt like I left a couple out there. But I feel very good about my game; yeah, I feel really happy with it.”
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BOGEY TRAIN: Keegan Bradley’s 77 was as stunning as his playing competitor Phil Mickelson’s 67 was impressive.
Certainly, making a triple, five bogeys and just one birdie left Bradley shaking his head.
“Just a lot of golf out there, a bunch of plugged lies,” Bradley said after hitting just nine fairways and nine greens.
Though Bradley birdied the par-3 No. 13 to offset a bogey at his opening hole, No. 11, his day quickly went downhill. He missed the fairway at No. 15 and made bogey. At No. 16, he missed the fairway right and made a massive mental mistake – he tried to rip it out of thick rough up and over the famed quarry. Bradley came up woefully short, had to take an unplayable, then put his next shot at the front of the green; from there, he three-putted for a triple.
“I’ve got to shoot as low as I can a couple of days,” Bradley said.
He’d certainly better, or else he’ll miss his first cut in seven major starts.