ARDMORE, Pa. — If you looked at Bubba Watson when he was standing in the right rough next to his tee shot on the 18th hole at Merion Golf Club, you might think he was trying to swat a pesky bug flying two feet over his head or cool himself off by waving his iron like a propeller.
Doing a favor for Phil Mickelson before hitting an approach shot on the hardest hole on the course in the second round of the U.S. Open wouldn’t be your first guess.
As Watson and playing partners Dustin Johnson and Nicolas Colsaerts walked down off the 18th tee, Mickelson — playing in the group behind them — was walking the opposite direction to the 17th green. Darkness was rapidly approaching, and Mickelson, Keegan Bradley and Steve Stricker wanted to finish their round.
Mickelson yelled to Watson and his playing partners that he wanted to hit a drive off the last hole even if they hadn’t played their second shots on 18 so his group would have the option of finishing even if play was suspended.
Mickelson then went to the 17th green, where his entire group made pars and then headed to the 18th tee. When Watson and Johnson got to their balls in the rough, Johnson looked back towards the tee box, squinted and said, “Is that Keegan? Let him go ahead.”
The problem was, they were standing 300 yards away from the tee box where the instructions were intended to be heard. So Bubba took things into his own hands. “Come on!” he yelled while waiving his club over his head for a few seconds.
Once Mickelson, Stricker and Bradley hit their drives (and they would finish their round before dark), Watson immediately stepped up and hit his approach short and left. His pitch shot suffered a similar fate, as it didn’t make it up the false front and rolled backwards several yards. Watson made his bogey putt for a 76 to finish at 7-over, eight shots behind leaders, Billy Horschel and Phil Mickelson.
Watson’s U.S. Open looked a lot better nine holes earlier.
He walked to the tee on the par-3 ninth hole at 1-over for the tournament after eight uneventful pars. The pin was in the front of the kidney-shaped green, which brings a small creek in front of the green into play. As Watson stood on the tee box, the wind began to gust in several different directions before settling on left-to-right. He hit his shot and watched the wind swallow his ball and drop it in the creek.
An angry Watson grabbed his club with both hands, walked back to his bag and muttered, “Wrong club. I knew it.” Watson’s playing partners, Dustin Johnson and Nicolas Colsaerts suffered the same watery fate. Soon after, the group was put on the clock by European Tour rules official John Paramor, who hit Guan Tianlang with a slow-play violation at the Masters earlier this year.
After making double on the ninth, Watson made another double on 10 and bogeyed the 11th and 12th. He had jumped to six-over, right on the projected cut line. No. 13 came just in time.
The short par-3 measured 123 yards and was the easiest hole on the course in the opening round of play, yielding an average score of 2.73. After changing clubs, Watson hit a low, spinning wedge to the middle of the green. He gently struck his birdie putt toward a hole that was situated off a side slope that forced the ball to start up high and break more, and more, and more, until it cut underneath the hole and rotated several more times before stopping two feet away from the cup.
Watson held his arms out to his side in a mixture of disgust and shock. He tapped in for par. It wasn’t the birdie he was inches away from, but it stopped his downward spiral.
If that par wasn’t enough to make him smile, he’d get to use his pink driver for the first time on the back nine on No. 14. That should make him happy, right? But even after he ripped a drive smack down the middle into near-blinding sunlight and landed his approach on the green in regulation, he didn’t look happy until the moment his caddie handed him the last half of a sandwich from his bag. Then Watson looked happy. The happiness lasted 414 yards, or as far as the 15th green. As his uphill birdie putt sputtered to a stop inches short of the hole, Watson looked into the crowd for the onlooker who had somehow distracted him.
He finished his round birdie-par-bogey to tip-toe next to the projected cut line. After doing battle with a fully-armed Merion all day, Watson was handed his iPhone as he walked off the green. His favorite hashtag never rang truer: #golfishard.