FARMINGDALE, N.Y. Just when you thought Phil Mickelson had the fairy-tale angle all to himself, the fractured first two days of the U.S. Open served up a couple of other protagonists whose surprise appearances on the leader board added even more emotional resonance to a tournament that has suddenly gone soft.
\nMickelson began his Open a day late and opened with a solid 69 in front of adoring fans, then finished up by going even par over 11 holes in a second round that began at 4:30 p.m. and was halted by darkness three and a half hours later. But during an endless Friday at rain-softened Bethpage, he had to share top billing with Rocco Mediate and David Duval, a couple of warriors who, respectively, are trying to steal the show for a second straight year and continue a climb out of the abyss.
\nMediate was a lovable loser last year in his epic 91-hole tussle with Tiger Woods at Torrey Pines, but he suddenly seems determined to be more than a mere sideshow. He produced a series of stellar iron shots en route to a first-round 68 that left him tied for fifth behind Mike Weir's sizzling 64 (a score that somehow included a double bogey). Before the second round was suspended by darkness, Mediate began to struggle, playing 10 holes in four over and falling eight behind Glover, the Southern gentleman who scorched Bethpage for five birdies in 13 holes during the afternoon. Having completed 13 holes in the second round, Glover stood at six under, one stroke ahead of 2002 U.S. Amateur champ Ricky Barnes, who was through nine.
\nDuval has had a perceptible swagger ever since he played his way through Open qualifying, and in his first round at the Black he went five under over the final 14 holes to post a 67, tying for third. Duval, whose last few seasons have been a struggle to recapture even a semblance of his old form, hung in there during a scrappy afternoon and was clearly energized by the dawn-to-dusk tour of Bethpage. "I hope I would appreciate it more," the 2001 British Open champ said of being in the mix at another major. "I have a very good idea what great golf is about and what bad golf is about."
\n The U.S. Open is supposed to be the most heartless of tournaments, but all the warm and fuzzy storylines on the leader board only add to the unreality of the first two days at Bethpage. The greens were so soft that players were routinely sucking back approach shots out of the rough. What is supposed to be golf's ultimate examination was turned into a potluck banquet as muddy golf balls were the norm in the fairway, especially when the first round was restarted at 7:30 a.m. Tiger Woods let a good round get away with a sloppy finish that included an errant mudball on the 16th hole. Woods's 74 was over by the brunch hour, and he wasn't scheduled to appear again until 10:06 a.m. on Saturday when he, like the others in the early Thursday groupings, will embark on their round two.
\nThe foreboding Saturday forecast includes a high probability of thunderstorms. Best case is that the second round is completed by Saturday evening and the Open concludes on Sunday in the dark after a rousing 36-hole finale. Worst case is the cut isn't made until sometime on Sunday evening and the Open finishes on Monday. Or Tuesday. Or, if the long-range forecast is correct, in July.
How sunny a player's attitude is through these upside-down opening rounds largely depends on the numbers on his scorecard. Despite his balky back, Mediate was raring to go between rounds. "Even though I'm old, I can still get around a little bit," he woofed.
\n With his iron game dialed in, Weir was among the many afternoon and evening players anxious to squeeze in as many holes as possible on a defanged golf course during a warm, windless Friday. "Our side [of the draw] definitely had a big advantage," said Weir, who has finished in the top six at three of the last six Opens. "For us to be able to play in nice conditions all day like this is huge."
\n Glad Weir enjoyed it. Everyone around beleaguered Bethpage is hoping the rest of this Open is equally pleasant. It's a nice thought, but it might just be another fairy tale.