ARDMORE, Pa. — Phil Mickelson rolled a birdie attempt 8 feet past the hole at No. 11. Steve Stricker did the same at No. 12. Bogey. Bogey.
And that wasn’t even the stormy part.
The horn blew at 8:36 a.m. Thursday, halting play after less than 2 hours into the first round of U.S. Open. It wasn’t raining as players and spectators left the course, but soon there were thunderclaps over the Merion Golf Club, and lightning and downpours followed.
Ian Poulter held the lead with three birdies in three holes as fans scurried toward the merchandize tents to wait out the storm. Four players were at 2 under.
Safety was a concern on a course that required fans to take long shuttle rides from remote parking lots. The USGA suspended transportation from three main lots to the course, although service continued for anyone who wanted to leave Merion.
At a fan zone, where a replay of the limited action was on a jumbo screen, a worker used a microphone to implore an overflow crowd to move to the merchandise tent.
“We’re not feeling safe having this many people in here,” he told them. Many folks heeded his message and moved on.
The course was already soaked with 6½ inches of rain over the past week, although sunshine Tuesday and Wednesday helped to dry things out a bit. The skies were already cloudy and a breeze rustled the trees when Cliff Kresge, a Floridian ranked No. 551 in the world, hit the first tee shot of the opening round, the first of 156 players on the historic course hosting the Open for the first time in 32 years.
The marquee group was scheduled to tee off shortly after lunchtime — weather permitting. Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Adam Scott are together as the top three players in the world rankings.
Even with all the rain softening up the shortest major championship course in nine years, Merion was going to be no easy stroll for the world’s top golfers. Mickelson and Stricker saw the notoriously sloping greens live up to their reputation after just a few minutes of play.
Mickelson’s early tee time presented a logistical challenge. He arrived at Merion after an overnight flight from San Diego, where he watched his oldest daughter graduate from the eighth grade.
Early on, he played like someone who didn’t get much sleep. Starting on the 11th hole — one of the unorthodox arrangements in the setup at this course — he opened with a 3-putt for a bogey and put his tee shot in the rough at No. 12. But he saved par at the 12th and birdied the short par-3 13th to pull back to even par.
Sergio Garcia was greeted with mild applause and a few audible boos when he was introduced at the start of his round. Garcia is playing his first tournament in the U.S. since his recent exchanges with Woods, which hit a low point when Garcia said he would serve fried chicken if Woods came over for dinner during the Open. Garcia has since apologized for the remark, and he was noticeably friendly to the gallery during Wednesday’s practice round, stopping several times to sign autographs.
The forecast for bad weather led to a USGA news conference Wednesday that covered topics like hail, standing water and the dreaded “potentially damaging winds.” At one point during a long and otherwise straight-laced opening statement, USGA vice president Tom O’Toole spoke about the presentation of the championship trophy — then rolled his eyes skyward and added: “which we hope will be Sunday.”
The forecast also renewed calls for officials to break with U.S. Open tradition and allow players to lift, clean and replace balls in the fairway if the conditions get nasty.
“I would be a fan of being able to clean the mud off,” said Matt Kuchar, a two-time winner this year on the PGA Tour. “I think it’s one of those really rotten breaks in golf. Driving it in a divot is a rotten break, but most of us can figure it out from there. You drive down the middle of the fairway and you have mud on the ball and you have no idea what’s going to happen, you have no real control. It seems like a guy might be rewarded more for missing fairways in those situations, being in the rough, not picking up the mud.”
Nice try. But such protestations went nowhere fast.
“We wouldn’t be adopting that rule this week,” O’Toole said. “And if it was so bad, then the obvious response to that, or consequence, would be we probably wouldn’t be playing.”
Any major disruption would be a shame, given that the U.S. Open has waited 32 years to return to the course where Olin Dutra overcame a serious stomach illness to win in 1934, where Ben Hogan hit the picture-perfect 1-iron approach to No. 18 before winning in a playoff in 1950, where Lee Trevino pulled a rubber snake out of his bag at the first hole of the playoff when he beat Jack Nicklaus for the title in 1971, and where David Graham became the first Australian to win the trophy in 1981.
It would also dampen the drama of Woods’ pursuit of his first major in five years, a reasonable proposition given that he’s already won four times on the PGA Tour this year. And Scott’s hopes of becoming the first to win the Masters and U.S. Open back-to-back since Woods in 2002.
Thought to be too small to host an Open anymore, Merion had been off the radar for so long that many of the top names in the field — including Woods — had never played it until recently. Organizers had to be creative with the placement of hospitality tents and parking lots on the club’s relatively small footprint, and ticket sales were capped at 25,000 a day instead of the usual 40,000 or so for recent championships.