ARDMORE, Pa. – Even for Phil Mickelson, his path to the top of the leaderboard Thursday in the U.S. Open was unconventional.
He traveled about 2,400 miles in the air and 7,000 yards on the ground. He took a short nap on his private jet from San Diego and another one during a rain delay when he found a secluded corner of the library room in the Merion clubhouse. He carried five wedges but no driver.
Some 17 hours later, Mickelson had a 3-under-par 67 to match his best opening round in the U.S. Open.
Mickelson returned from his daughter’s eighth-grade graduation about 3½ hours before his tee time. He three-putted his first hole for a bogey and didn’t give back a shot the rest of the day at Merion, which proved plenty tough by yielding only one other round under par to the 78 players who completed the first round.
Because of two rain delays, the first round won’t be completed until Friday morning. Mickelson won’t have to tee it up again for another 24 hours.
Enough time to fly back to San Diego?
“I don’t want to push it, no,” Mickelson said with a tired smile.
Tiger Woods faced a tougher road. He appeared to hurt his left hand after trying to gouge out of the deep rough on the opening hole. He grimaced and shook his left wrist again after hitting a 5-wood out of the rough on the fifth hole. He already had three bogeys though five holes before starting to make up ground with a 50-foot birdie putt on the par-4 sixth hole.
Woods, however, failed to take advantage on the short stretch of holes in the middle of the round, and he was shaking his hand again after shots out of the rough on the 10th and twice on the 11th. He was 2-over for his round and had a 4-foot par putt on the 11th when play was stopped for the day.
“I’ve got a lot of holes to play tomorrow,” Woods said. “And, hopefully, I can play a little better than I did today.”
Luke Donald was 4-under through 13 holes, making one last birdie before leaving the course. The first round was to resume at 7:15 a.m. Friday, and the forecast called for drier weather for the rest of the week.
Masters champion Adam Scott, playing with Woods and Rory McIlroy, was 3-under through 11 holes, while defending U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson was 2-under through eight holes. McIlroy was even par.
Lee Westwood got the full Merion experience. He was 3-under when his approach on the 12th hit the wicker basket – the signature at Merion, replacing traditional flags – and bounced off the green, leading to a double bogey.
For Mickelson, this could be the start of yet another chance to win the major championship he wants so dearly. Or maybe he’s setting himself up for more heartache. He already has been a runner-up a record five times in the U.S. Open.
“If I’m able – and I believe I will – if I’m able to ultimately win a U.S. Open, I would say that it’s great,” Mickelson said. “Because I will have had ... a win and five seconds. But if I never get that win, then it would be a bit heart-breaking.”
Nicolas Colsaerts of Belgium, the only other player from the morning wave to break par, picked up birdies on the short seventh and eighth holes for a 69.
Former Masters champion Charl Schwartzel, Tim Clark, Rickie Fowler, Jason Day and Jerry Kelly were the only others who at least matched par at 70. Clark and Kelly were at 2 under deep in their rounds until running into trouble, which isn’t hard to do in the U.S. Open, especially at Merion. Clark took a double bogey-bogey stretch in the middle of his back nine. Kelly was one shot behind Mickelson until a double bogey on the 18th hole.
“It’s a lot tougher than they say it is,” Schwartzel said.
It doesn’t take much – just two holes for Sergio Garcia, who found Merion far more daunting than the few wisecracks from the gallery. Garcia received mostly warm applause, with some barely audible boos from the grandstand when he started his round on No. 11. It was his first time competing in America since his public spat with Woods took a bad turn when he jokingly said he would have Woods over for dinner during the U.S. Open and serve fried chicken.
“There were a couple here and there,” Garcia said about some jeers. “But I felt the people were very nice for the whole day. I think that almost all of them were behind me and that was nice to see.”
They saw him hit his tee shot out of bounds on No. 14 right before the first rain delay, leading to double bogey. Then, he hooked his next shot out of bounds and hit a bunker shot over the green on his way to a quadruple-bogey 8 at No. 15. Despite being 6-over on those two holes, he rallied for a 73.
Mickelson, meanwhile, looked as though he could play this golf course in his sleep. And he nearly did.
With two holes remaining, he hit 5-iron into 30 feet on the 237-yard ninth hole and told caddie Jim “Bones” Mackay that he was starting to hit the ball. Despite the constant smiling, Mickelson is intense inside the ropes, and Mackay told him to stop thinking about his swing, his next shot, the course or anything else related to golf during the walk to the green. Lefty rolled in the right-to-left breaking putt for another birdie.
“Being able to tune in and tune out was kind of nice the last hole or two,” Mickelson said. “It’s been a long day.”
The only other time Mickelson opened with a 67 in the U.S. Open was in 1999 at Pinehurst No. 2, and his oldest daughter was part of that story, too. Mickelson carried a pager with him that week because his wife was due with their first child. He finished one shot behind when the late Payne Stewart holed a 15-foot par putt on the last hole, and Amanda was born the next day.
Mickelson was always going to be home before the U.S. Open because Amanda, who turns 14 next week, was chosen to be a featured speaker at her graduation. He left Merion on Monday, a day earlier than planned, when more heavy rain washed out most of the practice round. Besides, Mickelson felt like he knew the course well enough from his scouting trip last week.
“She told me that it’s fine. ‘Stay, it’s the U.S. Open. I know how much you care about it.’ And I told her that I want to be there,” Mickelson said. “I don’t want to miss her speech. I don’t want to miss her graduation. She spent nine years at that school. And she’s worked very hard and I’m very proud of her.”
The ceremony was at 6 p.m. PDT. Mickelson was on the plane two hours later, landing in Philadelphia about 3:30 a.m. He had a few hours of sleep on the plane, and then played five holes before the rain delay. He found a few cushions for a makeshift bed in the clubhouse library.
Despite his four birdies, including a 25-foot putt that fell on its last turn at No. 1, Mickelson saved his round with some crucial pars.
He missed the par-3 third green to the right, in fluffy grass down the hill, and hit a flop shot that landed on the collar and stopped 5 feet from the cup. He caught a break when his tee shot went into the hazard left of the fifth fairway, about a foot away from dropping into the small stream. He got that out, hit wedge to 8 feet and made a difficult right-to-left putt. And on the next hole, he swung hard to generate height and spin out of the bunker, the only way to get the ball close. He made an 8-footer for par.
Mickelson hit 9-iron to 2 feet on the seventh hole for birdie, and holed that 30-foot putt on the ninth.
And then, it was time to rest.
“He had a crazy 24 hours,” said Keegan Bradley, playing alongside Mickelson and Steve Stricker. “Sometimes that helps, not thinking about it.”