ARDMORE, Pa. — They say you can't win a tournament on day one, you can only lose it. Not true. There was a winner in the first round of the 113th U.S. Open, and it wore long, green hair and a lot of red wicker. Merion won. Clip of the day: the wicker basket on 12 swatting then-co-leader Lee Westwood's third shot out of the air and 30 yards down the hill fronting the green. He made double.
This was going to be the day that the pros won. The course had soaked up six inches of rain. The greens were slow. Merion had gone from fast and fiery, the way the USGA's Mike Davis wanted it to play, to soft and smelly. It was a mud cupcake, and this was going to be the day that some guy went out and frosted it with a 62, bettering Johnny Miller's 63, the lowest score ever shot in a major, and battering an old relic from a bygone era when people actually hit 1-irons.
Okay, maybe not. Maybe it's time to rethink the Merion-is-easy angle.
"Well, this was as easy as this golf course is going to play," Phil Mickelson said after carding a 3-under 67 in the morning despite a three-and-a-half-hour rain delay. "We had very little wind — there was some, but very little. We had soft fairways, soft greens, and we had no mud balls. So we had the best opportunity to score low. And we are all struggling because it's such a penalizing golf course."
Mickelson's 67 was the low round, but Luke Donald, who played through a second delay, was 4 under through 13 holes when play was halted due to darkness. Four players were at 2 under, including defending champ Webb Simpson (through eight) and Masters winner Adam Scott (through 10). No matter. Merion still won.
If you like your winners to have a heartbeat instead of a mowing schedule then your winner is the USGA's Davis, a maverick who has shaken up the staid, old guard from Far Hills, N.J., since he became executive director in 2011. He and the USGA are trying all sorts of wild things, from new legislation to planning the men's and women's U.S. Opens in back to back weeks at Pinehurst next year.
When the rain hit Merion late last week, it seemed like a reminder that not every experiment will pan out, but Davis is looking golden after the first round.
"Thursday is really a super shocker, folks," said NBC's Miller, whose record 63 at the '73 U.S. Open at Oakmont suddenly looks quite safe again, if not as safe as Hogan's 1-iron, which is handled with rubber gloves at USGA HQ in Far Hills.
Sixty-two? Um, no. Mickelson shot 62 only if you take away the par-4 11th hole, his first of the day and the only hole where the popular Lefty made bogey.
Sergio Garcia had a 6 and a 2. He also had a quadruple-bogey 8 after hitting his tee shot O.B. on 14, and a double-bogey 6 after doing the same on 15. He made three bogeys, too, and one eagle, four birdies and eight pars for a 3-over 73, and the craziest round since Clubber Lang punched himself out at the end of Rocky III.
Merion had not hosted a U.S. Open in 32 years. The course was believed to be too short, too easy, to stand up against today's high-tech equipment advances.
Well, so much for that idea. If Merion was so easy, Tiger Woods wouldn't have swung his club at the air in anger while bogeying two of the first three. He wouldn't have winced at the fifth after getting a stinger in his left arm while hitting out of the rough, just before play was called for a second time due to rain at 6:10 p.m. Woods came back after the delay to bogey that hole as well. Not easy.
Merion went from merry to murderous in an instant. Tim Clark, proponent of the broomstick putter and an outspoken critic of the USGA's announced ban on anchoring, was tied for the lead at 2 under when he came to the 499-yard, par-4 fifth hole, the hardest on the course. He missed the fairway, his ball nestling in the thick rough on the bank of a stream that lurks left of the right-to-left tilted fairway.
Clark took a goofy stance, his left foot on one bank and his right foot on the other. He stabbed at the grass, but his ball found yet more rough. With his third shot, a violent, thrashing lunge that got him back to the fairway, he looked like he was trying to kill Lee Trevino's snake. Clark pitched onto the harshest green on the course, watched his ball run well past the pin, and two-putted for double-bogey.
"Probably not as good, I guess," Clark (70) said when asked how the field had done Thursday in comparison to what was expected. "Everybody thought under par, and there's really not that many guys going that low." Mike Weir, who like Clark was cruising along at 2 under par and in a tie for the lead, bogeyed four of his last five holes to shoot 72. He said Merion's greens were so severely sloped it led to "tough putting," even though they rolled slower. Jerry Kelly (70) said the back pin placements were unreachable on soft greens.
"I think that anybody in that commentary box has never given this golf course enough respect," said Ian Poulter, who birdied his first three holes but couldn't maintain momentum and shot 1-over 71. "They were joking around laughing at [the idea of] 63s and 62s, and just look at that board."
Boo Weekley, who won at Colonial just three weeks ago, jarred his short approach shot on the par-4 10th hole, his last of the day, for a 75. Fourth-ranked Matt Kuchar, a pre-tournament favorite, made just one birdie and had a 74. Brandt Snedeker sputtered with a 7 on the par-5 second hole and also signed for a 74.
"There's some nasty rough out there," said Rickie Fowler (70). "It is short on the card, and it was playing soft today, which makes it play longer. I actually think this course plays more like a 7,400 or 7,500-yard golf course."
The players never predicted 62. It was a media thing, a rumor of a possibility that got out of control. Playing in the same threesome with his Ryder Cup partner Phil Mickelson and Steve Stricker, Keegan Bradley triple-bogeyed the 16th hole and shot 77. He was 10 shots behind Mickelson and 15 shots north of 62.
"The course is hard," said Bradley. "The course is soft, it almost makes it harder. The rough is thicker. The greens aren't rolling. The course is hard."
So what he's saying is the course is hard. And if the sun ever comes out and the wind blows and the course gets crispy? Harder. Maybe it'll be another 32 years before this funky little charmer hosts another U.S. Open. Maybe it never will, but if not it'll be based on complicated logistics, not an outdated course. No matter what happens now, the USGA's Davis and especially Merion have already won.