Mickelson Clubhouse First-Round Leader at U.S. Open
After attending daughter’s eight-grade graduation ceremony on Wednesday, Lefty cards 67 in weather-delayed opening round
By Stuart Hall
ARDMORE, Pa. – Around these parts, Philadelphia 76ers basketball legend Allen Iverson's 2002 rant about the unimportance of practice is well remembered.
On Thursday, in the first round of the U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club's East Course, Phil Mickelson made a similar statement with his game. After spending only a few hours on site the preceding three practice days, Mickelson shot a 3-under 67 to claim the clubhouse lead on a day that was plagued by 4 hours, 17 minutes in weather delays.
Play was suspended for the day at 8:16 p.m. EDT and will resume on Friday at 7:15 a.m.
Among the clubhouse leaders with Mickelson were Nicolas Colsaerts at 1-under 69; 2011 Masters champion Charl Schwartzel, Tim Clark, Jerry Kelly, Rickie Fowler and Jason Day at even-par 70; and 10 players at 1-over 71, including 2012 Masters champion Bubba Watson, Dustin Johnson, Steve Stricker, Justin Rose, Ian Poulter and amateur Kevin Phelan.
Of the players who will finish their first round on Friday morning, Luke Donald leads the way at four under through 13 holes. Reigning Masters champion Adam Scott and U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson are at two under, along with Australians Mathew Goggin and Alistair Presnell. Rory McIlroy, the 2011 U.S. Open champion, leads a group of nine players at one under. Three-time U.S. Open winner Tiger Woods is two over through 10 holes.
In a decision that raised eyebrows, Mickelson, a five-time U.S. Open runner-up, hit a few balls at the East Course on Monday, then flew home to Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., to attend his daughter Amanda's eighth-grade graduation on Wednesday evening.
He arrived back in Philadelphia around 3:30 a.m. Thursday. Mickelson, who owns the championship's seventh-best all-time scoring average [72.20], gave Merion its toughest fight on just a few hours of sleep.
"It might be abnormal, but it actually worked out really well," said Mickelson, who spent two days at Merion prior to playing last week's FedEx St. Jude Classic in Memphis, Tenn. "I knew exactly how I wanted to play the golf course, given different wind conditions, clubs I was going to be hitting, where I was going to be and the shots that I was going to have. So I didn't feel I needed more time at Merion, what I needed was to get my touch sharp."
Mickelson did that at home in weather more conducive to practice than the soggy conditions that were created by 6½ inches of rain over the weekend and on Monday in Ardmore.
Given that Merion is playing at slightly under 7,000 yards with course conditions softened by the rains, the 101-year-old Hugh Wilson design was considered vulnerable to low scoring.
Instead, Merion played to a stroke average of 73.8.
"Everyone that I saw on TV was saying that we're going to rip up this course. I can't see it," said Day, who was among the 78 players in the morning's first wave who were able to complete the opening round.
On Mickelson's opening hole, the 375-yard, par-4 11th, he three-putted for bogey. He birdied the 102-yard, par-3 13th and 340-yard, par-4 first to reach one under. Mickelson called his 9-iron approach into the 382-yard, par-4 seventh green his best shot of the day, and it set up a tap-in birdie. He added his final birdie at the 237-yard, par-3 ninth.
How sharp was Mickelson? Consider that he missed just three fairways and four greens in regulation, and took just 29 putts. The best number, though, was the red 3 under.
"This was as easy as this golf course is going to play," he said. "We had very little wind. We had soft fairways, soft greens, and no mud balls. So we had the best opportunity to score low. And we are all struggling because it's such a penalizing golf course. It's penalizing if you miss the fairways, very difficult if you miss the greens, and it's not a given to two-putt on these greens.
"It's a course that's withstood the test of time and it's challenging the best players in the world this week. As the week wears on and the conditions get a little bit drier, a little bit firmer, I think the course is going to get even more difficult and the scores are going to hover very close to par."
Colsaerts, a 2012 European Ryder Cup member making his third U.S. Open start, balanced three bogeys in a five-hole stretch with consecutive birdies at holes 7 and 8, and 13 and 14. Despite Merion's stinginess, Colsaerts believes the course plays to his strength.
"I think it does," he said. "I'm a decent ball striker, which is key on a U.S. Open setup."
Donald had birdied holes 11, 12 and 13 — considered three of Merion's easier holes — when play was suspended. While pleased, he knows a sterner Merion waits.
"I've only played two-thirds of a round, but [in the lead is] where you want to be," he said.
Stuart Hall is a North Carolina-based freelance writer whose work frequently appears on USGA championship websites.