What jet lag? Phil felt the love Thursday, and he loved Merion right back
ARDMORE, Pa. — When Phil Mickelson's daughter Amanda addressed her eighth-grade class during her graduation ceremony on Wednesday — a speech Phil flew back from Philadelphia to San Diego to hear — she quoted not Abraham Lincoln, or Mahatma Gandhi, or Bobby Jones.
No, her father revealed after his opening-round, no-signs-of-jet-lag 67 at the 2013 U.S. Open on Thursday, she instead chose the words of the newscasting, flute-playing philosopher made famous by Will Ferrell in the 2004 comedy Anchorman.
“In the words of Ron Burgundy,” Amanda told her classmates and family, “We're kind of a big deal.”
The line killed, Phil said, because Amanda wasn’t bragging, she was simply paying homage to all the great things her classmates had accomplished — with a nod to one of San Diego's most beloved fictional characters.
That Phil witnessed the moment was a testament to both his family values and the wonders of aviation. The graduation began at 6 p.m. on Wednesday (yes, 9 p.m. on the East Coast), less than 12 hours before his 7:11 a.m. tee time on Merion Golf Club's East Course. But Mickelson wanted to be there, and that was that.
He flew back to San Diego Tuesday afternoon, attended the graduation Wednesday evening, then hopped his Gulfstream back to Philly later that night, touching down about 3:30 a.m. Thursday. Sleep? Not much. Couple hours' tops on the plane, Lefty said, and another hour on the ground.
"I do this about six, 10 times a year, where I fly back east [on a] red-eye, play some outing and then come home," Mickelson said. "So it's not out of the ordinary."
Not out of the ordinary? It's one thing to fly overnight for hits-and-giggles with some Rolex bigwigs, but quite another to do so on the eve of golf's most grueling test. "Yeah, it might be abnormal," Mickleson said when pushed, admitting he had never taken an overnighter on the night before a tournament, "but it actually worked out really well."
Mickelson's weather-delayed, four-birdie 67 was his best opening round at a U.S. Open since 1999, and he played the course exactly as a U.S. Open setup needs to be played, hitting 11 fairways and 14 greens. His round began with a bogey at the par-4 11th, his first hole of the day, but he countered with birdies at the short par-3 13th , the par-4 1st, the par-4 7th and the 236-yard par-3 9th, where after a quick pep talk from his caddie, Jim (Bones) Mackay, Mickelson drained an uphill left-to-righter from 30 feet.
"I told Bones on 9 tee box that I kind of hit a wall," said Mickleson, who caught a short nap during the three-and-half-hour weather delay that interrupted play Thursday morning. "And he said, 'Well, let's just take a little mental break as we walk down there, and I ended up making the putt.'"
Roars ensued, as they did just about anywhere Mickelson tread. At the slippery, sloping par-4 5th, he hit an approach that stopped above the hole before trickling within 12 feet. "All day, Phil!" a fan bellowed. "All day!"
"Your town, Philip! Your town!" another cried.
Along the 6th fairway, a spectator congratulated Mickelson on his daughter's graduation, to which Lefty responded with his trademark SGTU (shy grin, thumbs up).
At the tee box at the par-3 9th, a Haverford Township police officer left his post and his obstructed view to sneak a peek of Mickelson's tee shot. "I can't do it anymore," the officer said, as he wedged his way into a group of reporters behind the tee, "I got to get in here."
Mickelson was showered with so many cheers and applause as he traversed the long walk behind the 10th green and across the first fairway back to the scorer's tent that you'd swear he had already won this thing. One witty fan repeatedly hollered, "Phil-adelphia! Phil-aldephia!"
Mickelson's always a fan favorite, but the rowdy galleries of the Northeast seem to respond particularly well to his swashbuckling style. We saw it at Bethpage in 2002 and 2009, and at the Baltusrol PGA in 2005. And now at Merion, where as Mickleson ascended to the top of the leaderboard, the vibe at times felt more like a Flyers playoff game than a golf tournament. That atmosphere will only intensify if Mickelson, who is still seeking his first Open win after five runner-up finishes, can stick around through the weekend.
There's little reason to believe he won't. Depending on how the course is set up, up to nine of the first 13 holes on the East Course ask for little more than a wedge approach, Mickleson's speciality. He, in fact, left his driver out of his bag this week so he could carry four wedges, a strategic decision that hasn't cost him much off the tee, thanks to his jacked-up 3-wood."
"This thing is a hot 3-wood," Mickelson said, "I kept up with Keegan's driver for most of the day."
That would be Keegan Bradley, one of Mickelson's two playing partners Thursday. Bradley never looked comfortable, carding a 77, which had him thinking that maybe in a weird way Mickelson's frenetic week actually benefited the lefthander.
"He's had a crazy last 24 hours," Bradley said. "Sometimes that helps, not thinking about it."
Liking the course also helps, and Mickelson says he adores Merion, or at least the way it has been set up. He's so giddy that he felt the need to tell USGA executive director Mike Davis as much — mid-round. As Mickelson approached the first tee on Thursday, eight holes already behind him, he spotted Davis dining on the clubhouse veranda that abuts the tee box, and engaged him in a brief conversation.
"I told him that this is the best setup I've ever seen for a U.S. Open," Mickelson said. "I think that what I love about Merion and what they did to Merion in the setup is they made the hard holes even harder. They moved the tees back on the more difficult holes, which made it even tougher pars. But on the easy holes, they didn't trick them up and take away your birdie opportunities."
Whether those birdie opportunities will remain for the taking is uncertain. More rain is forecast for Thursday night, but Friday and the weekend look to be warm and dry. That will mean this old, quirky course will get harder and faster and tougher. And Mickelson knows all about tough Opens.
"If I'm able to ultimately win a U.S. Open, I would say that [my relationship with the Open] is great," Mickelson said Thursday afternoon. "Because I've had, I will have had, let's say a win and five seconds. But if I never get that win, then it would be a bit heartbreaking."