Mickelson cruised on day one, while Merion proved more than many pros could handle

Mickelson cruised on day one, while Merion proved more than many pros could handle

Mickelson looked and played like he was at ease Thursday, despite his exhausting schedule.
Robert Beck / Sports Illustrated

ARDMORE, Pa. — Is this the most Phil thing ever, or what?

Luke Donald may be leading this weather-compromised U.S. Open, but the irrepressible Mickelson was the talk of the town on Thursday. At a tournament that has dealt him nothing but heartbreak, Phil the Thrill has found a new formula for U.S. Open success: heavy eyelids.

Golf’s most dedicated dad blew into Philly at 3:30 a.m. Thursday morning, less than four hours ahead of his tee time and fresh from a commando trip to California for his daughter Amanda’s 8th grade graduation ceremony. This kind of over-the-top parenting would not impress Mr. Incredible, who once kvetched, “It is not a graduation. He will be moving from the 4th grade to the 5th grade. It’s psychotic! They keep inventing new ways to celebrate mediocrity, but when someone is genuinely exceptional …”

But Mickelson seemed energized by his non-traditional approach to a tournament at which he had been a runner-up a record five times, and his first-round 67 (-3) was exceptional for its tidiness: he three-putted his opening hole, the 11th, and then avoided any further unpleasantness, hitting 11 fairways and 14 greens. Mickelson’s 67 is his lowest round at an Open since 1999 at Pinehurst, where he would ultimately suffer the first in a series of devastating near-misses. (He may or may not have been distracted by Amanda’s impending birth; she arrived the day after Payne Stewart trumped Mickelson on the 72nd hole.)

Now an arthritic 42 year old, Mickelson knows he’s running out of chances to win the tournament he most covets. “[If] I never get that win, then it would be a bit heart breaking,” he said on Thursday.

What makes the Open so cruel is how it ruthlessly exposes a player’s weaknesses. Mickelson and Sam Snead will go down as two the of the most natural talents ever to pick up a golf club, but the Slammer went oh-fer-the-Open in his career because he lacked the discipline and course management skills to cope with the tournament’s rigors. Mickelson has heard much of the same criticism, but the overnight plane ride from California forced him to approach the first round more cerebrally.

Said Phil, “I was able to take the time on the plane to read my notes, study, relive the golf course, go through how I was going to play each hole, where the pins were, where I want to miss it, where I want to be, study the green charts. It gave me a great few hours to study my notes and get mentally prepared.”

Merion represents the right course at the right time for this more studied approach. Playing a petite 6,996 yards, the course demands precision, not power, so much so that Mickelson was able to take his most unreliable club out of the bag — his driver — and add a fifth wedge to his arsenal. A morning thunderstorm that delayed play for more than three-and-a-half hours did little to change the way Merion played. (Though it did help Mickelson — he napped for an hour.) The rough, already long and thick, is now so saturated that hitting fairways has become even more paramount.

“The golf course is playing about as easy as it could and yet Merion is really fighting hard,” said Mickelson. “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. They’re some of the most pitched greens we have ever seen and they’re very quick. It’s a course that’s withstood the test of time and it’s challenging the best players in the world this week.”

Donald, perhaps the game’s preeminent wedge player, thrived on a course that potentially offers short approach shots on nine of the first 13 holes. The former world No. 1 made five birdies in 13 holes, offset by a lone bogey on the long par-4 5th.

“Obviously the weather conditions are making the course a lot softer, and you can attack the pins a little bit more,” said Donald, who shares with Lee Westwood the dreaded title of “Best Player Never To Have Won A Major.”

A second electrical storm halted play for 50 minutes beginning at 6:10 p.m., stranding 77 players mid-round. But the varied leaderboard is a testament to Merion’s virtues, as it is accommodating a wide variety of styles: bomb-and-gougers (Nicolas Colsaerts, 69; Dustin Johnson and Bubba Watson, 71s), accurate short-knockers (Tim Clark and Jerry Kelly, 70s), shotmaker extraordinaires (Adam Scott, -2 thru 11; Lee Westwood, -1 thru 13; Rickie Fowler and Charl Schwartzel, 70) and putting wizards (Webb Simpson, -2 thru 8; Steve Stricker and Ian Poulter, 71s).

Looking a little bit off in all facets of his game, Tiger Woods made four bogeys in 10 holes — at +2 he’s in 51st place.

“I’ve got a lot of holes to play tomorrow,” Woods said as darkness fell on Merion. “And hopefully I can play a little better than I did today.”

The U.S. Open is a war of attrition even under the best of circumstances, but the players will be further tested by days fractured by the weather delays. While Mickelson sleeps in on Friday, half the field will rise in the dark to complete the first round. A chance of more thunderstorms on Friday further complicates the playing of the second round, which will now surely bleed into Saturday. Despite the ease with which Mickelson la-di-daed his way around the course, the U.S. Open is not supposed to be easy. It’s not going to be the rest of the way.