ARDMORE, Pa. — Even for Phil Mickelson, his path to the top of the leaderboard Thursday in the U.S. Open was unconventional.
He traveled about 2,400 miles in the air and 7,000 yards on the ground. He took a short nap on his private jet from San Diego and another one during a rain delay when he found a secluded corner of the library room in the Merion clubhouse. He carried five wedges but no driver.
Some 17 hours later, Mickelson had a 3-under 67 to match his best opening round in the U.S. Open.
Mickelson returned from his daughter’s eighth-grade graduation about 3 1/2 hours before his tee time. He three-putted his first hole for a bogey and didn’t give back a shot the rest of the day at Merion, which proved plenty tough by yielding only one other round under par to the 78 players who completed the first round.
Because of two rain delays, the first round won’t be completed until Friday morning. Mickelson won’t have to tee it up again for another 24 hours.
Tiger Woods faced a tougher road. He appeared to hurt his left hand after trying to gouge out of the deep rough on the opening hole. He grimaced and shook his left wrist again after hitting a 5-wood out of the rough on the fifth hole. He already had three bogeys though five holes before starting to make up ground with a 50-foot birdie putt on the par-4 sixth hole.
Woods, however, failed to take advantage on the short stretch of holes in the middle of the round, and he was shaking his hand again after shots out of the rough on the 10th and twice on the 11th. He was 2-over for his round and had a 4-foot par putt on the 11th when play was stopped for the day.
“I’ve got a lot of holes to play tomorrow,” Woods said. “And, hopefully, I can play a little better than I did today.”
Luke Donald was 4-under through 13 holes, making one last birdie before leaving the course. The first round was to resume at 7:15 a.m. Friday, and the forecast called for drier weather for the rest of the week.
Masters champion Adam Scott, playing with Woods and Rory McIlroy, was 3-under through 11 holes, while defending U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson was 2-under through eight holes. McIlroy was 1-under.
It doesn’t take much — just two holes for Sergio Garcia, who found Merion far more daunting than the few wisecracks from the gallery. Garcia received mostly warm applause, with some barely audible boos from the grandstand when he started his round on No. 11. It was his first time competing in America since his public spat with Woods took a bad turn when he jokingly said he would have Woods over for dinner during the U.S. Open and serve fried chicken.
“There were a couple here and there,” Garcia said about some jeers. “But I felt the people were very nice for the whole day. I think that almost all of them were behind me and that was nice to see.”
They saw him hit his tee shot out of bounds on No. 14 right before the first rain delay, leading to double bogey. Then, he hooked his next shot out of bounds and hit a bunker shot over the green on his way to a quadruple-bogey 8 at No. 15. Despite being 6-over on those two holes, he rallied for a 73.
Mickelson, meanwhile, looked as though he could play this golf course in his sleep. And he nearly did.
Mickelson was always going to be home before the U.S. Open because Amanda, who turns 14 next week, was chosen to be a featured speaker at her graduation. He left Merion on Monday, a day earlier than planned, when more heavy rain washed out most of the practice round. Besides, Mickelson felt like he knew the course well enough from his scouting trip last week.
“She told me that it’s fine. ‘Stay, it’s the U.S. Open. I know how much you care about it.’ And I told her that I want to be there,” Mickelson said. “I don’t want to miss her speech. I don’t want to miss her graduation. She spent nine years at that school. And she’s worked very hard and I’m very proud of her.”
The ceremony was at 6 p.m. PDT. Mickelson was on the plane two hours later, landing in Philadelphia at about 3:30 a.m EST. He had a few hours of sleep on the plane, and then played five holes before the rain delay. He found a few cushions for a makeshift bed in the clubhouse library.
Despite his four birdies, including a 25-foot putt that fell on its last turn at No. 1, Mickelson saved his round with some crucial pars.
And then, it was time to rest.