With apologies to Billy Horschel, the large crowds that followed the group had a little more interest in Tiger Woods and Rory McIroy than the 26-year-old American who is playing in only his second U.S. Open.
Woods and McIroy gave fans an early preview of the next two days. They are grouped with Adam Scott for the first two rounds in an all-star threesome that could have Merion tilting on its side from the number the fans expected to follow the world's top-ranked players.
Horschel has already had a taste of what it's like to play alongside Woods. They were paired for the final 36 holes when Woods won at Torrey Pines earlier this year. He told reporters that he was scheduled to play with Woods on Monday, but the rain altered those plans.
So when he showed up at the range on Wednesday morning and Woods said that he and McIroy were teeing off on No. 11 at 6:40 a.m., Horschel had himself a loop - or eight holes worth.
"It just worked out that way," he told reporters.
Despite the near-full stands that greeted them at No. 18, when Woods and McIroy plugged their tees into the ground on their first hole, there were only a handful of onlookers. Woods, in a white shirt with orange trim, and McIroy, in a fluorescent green top, were businesslike most of the morning, but chatting and joked with each other on occasion.
On the 18th hole, Woods drove 25 yards behind the plaque that marks Ben Hogan's historic 1-iron in the 1950 U.S. Open. He had the exact line as Hogan to a right front pin location. After he stroked his 4-iron to the left side of the green, McIlroy said something to Woods that prompted the response, "In my dreams."
Later on, Woods' caddie, Joe LaCava, said that McIroy was just teasing the 37-year-old about falling short of Hogan's drive. The 521-yard par 4 is, of course, about 60 yards longer than it was 63 years ago.
For most of the morning, McIroy and Horschel hit two balls from tee to green while Woods stuck to one. At No. 13, after the threesome crossed Ardmore Avenue, the crowd began to swell. By the time they got to No. 15, the "Tiger" catcalls started.
When Woods hit his approach shot at the 411-yard 15th to just below the hole, there was light applause, as if fans didn't know whether to clap during a practice round. There was the occasional reminder, however, such as when an official told fans on the 16th tee: "Please, no pictures until after the players swing."
Walking with the group was Merion member Buddy Marucci, who has links to both Woods and McIroy. In 1995, Marucci lost to Woods as the then-19-year-old phenom won his second of three U.S. Amateur championships. And Marucci captained the 2007 U.S. Walker Cup team that beat McIroy and the Great Britain/Ireland team.
McIroy and Horschel actually had a minor tiff at that Walker Cup when the then-17-year-old Irishman told reporters after his singles victory "that he didn't have mind time" for Horschel because of his animated behavior on the course.
All appeared forgotten on Wednesday.
By the time they reached the 18th tee, Woods' niece, Cheyenne Woods, was waiting for him. "You know how hard it is to get out here?" she said to him before receiving a hug. Cheyenne Woods, a fledgling pro golfer, has been writing for the website Back9Network.com this week and actually asked her uncle a question during his Tuesday news conference.
As Horschel teed off, McIroy asked Woods if he could see his driver, and like any Joe Hack would at the local Muni, he held the clubs together and compared the offsets on their drivers.
Up at the green, as the players practiced their putting, Sergio Garcia walked onto the tee at the nearby first hole. Woods and Garcia, of course, have been at odds in a spat that reached high school levels when the Spaniard revealed on Tuesday that he had slipped a handwritten apology into his rival's locker.
After he gave McIlroy a "bro" handshake, and signed about two minutes-worth of autographs, Woods grabbed a van back to the range to hit balls for another 30 minutes. McIlroy was back at the practice area at noon.
They meet again on the first tee tomorrow afternoon at 1:14 p.m.
Could they both be in the hunt come Sunday?
©2013 The Philadelphia Inquirer
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