ARDMORE, Pa. — On a Thursday that first belonged to Mother Nature then later to Phil Mickelson, when darkness fell on the weather-splintered, mud-spattered first round of the U.S. Open at Merion, Luke Donald had a one-stroke lead and Tiger Woods had a sore left hand.
Mickelson was the only one in the top five to have completed his first 18 holes, shooting 67 in a round that took more than nine hours to complete due to a 3-hour, 32-minute rain delay during the morning.
Mickelson had flown overnight from San Diego after attending his daughter Amanda’s middle-school graduation ceremony, arriving in Philadelphia shortly before dawn Thursday.
“It might be abnormal but it worked out really well,” said Mickelson after his best U.S. Open start since his 1999 runner-up finish at Pinehurst No. 2.
The weather, which accounted for two delays totaling more than four hours, left the first round incomplete.
Donald was 4-under through 13 holes and facing the most difficult stretch of holes while Masters champion Adam Scott was 3-under through 11 holes. Defending champion Webb Simpson was 2-under through eight holes while Charlotte qualifier Mathew Goggin was also 2-under through six holes.
“I’ve only played two-thirds of a round but ... that’s where you want to be,” said Donald, who birdied his last three holes before play was suspended at 8:16 p.m.
Woods, 2-over through 10 holes, was a curiosity. Several times during his ragged start, Woods winced after hitting shots, holding his left hand. Woods made a long birdie putt at the sixth hole but otherwise struggled after starting his first round at 4:48 p.m.
He and the other players in the afternoon wave will resume the first round at 7:15 a.m. Friday and the second round will commence as soon as possible thereafter.
For all the worries about 6,996-yard Merion not being able to stand up to the best of the modern game if conditions turned soft, the historic layout proved to be an unrelenting test.
“The course is hard,” said Keegan Bradley, who opened with 77. “The course is soft, it almost makes it harder.”
Having absorbed more than six inches of rain since last Friday, Merion got hit twice Thursday . It left fairways squishy, greens more receptive and turned some spectator walkways into deep, gooey mud holes.
Without further weather delays, the tournament could be back on schedule late Saturday, setting up an 18-hole Sunday finish.
As Mickelson steadily worked his way up the leader board, eventually taking the lead at mid-afternoon, fans shouted “Phil-adelphia” as he began pursuit of a championship he’s never won but has finished second in five times.
Mickelson made a two-day reconnaissance mission to Merion prior to tournament week, allowing him to construct a game plan and skip town earlier this week. He played without a driver – something he also did the final three rounds at Memphis last week where he finished tied for second – and had five wedges in his bag.
Even in soft conditions, Merion’s narrow fairways, ankle-deep rough and uncommon angles discourage aggressive play, a Mickelson trait. With two stretches of difficult long holes sandwiched around a series of shorter holes, Merion puts a premium on precision and wedge play.
Comfortable with his approach and unable to practice due to heavy rains on Monday, Mickelson flew home and practiced in San Diego Tuesday and Wednesday. He attended his daughter’s school event early Wednesday evening then jetted cross-country, arriving at the tournament site at approximately 5:30 a.m. for his 7:11 a.m. tee time.
Mickelson said he got two hours sleep on the flight, grabbed a power nap before teeing off and snuck in another hour of sleep during the first delay Thursday morning.
“He thinks he can do anything,” Steve Stricker said of Mickelson. “The biggest thing with any of us out here is if you’re comfortable and confident in your decision -- and he felt good about it -- you can live with it. I think he expected to play well.”
Ron Green Jr. is senior writer for Global Golf Post (www.globalgolfpost.com) and a contributor to the Observer. Reach him at email@example.com.