Phil Mickelson’s unconventional preparation for US Open pays off with early clubhouse lead

Waterford amateur Kevin Phelan more than holds his own with the world’s top professionals

Waterford amateur Kevin Phelan tees off on the 14th in the first round of the US Open  at Merion GC.

Waterford amateur Kevin Phelan tees off on the 14th in the first round of the US Open at Merion GC.

Thu, Jun 13, 2013, 23:00

The eyes cast towards the heavens, with ears alert for the sound of the siren, encapsulated the anxiety today of those in attendance for the first round of the 113th US Open here at Merion Golf Club in the suburbs of Philadelphia; and, if the early stoppage which stretched to three hours and 32 minutes was a nuisance, the moral of those attempting to conquer the course was a simple one: play the ball as it lies, and get on with it!

Phil Mickelson, more than anyone, showed how to do it. Only a matter of hours after jetting into the Phillie area, Mickelson – chasing a first US Open title – fired an opening 67, three-under par, to claim the clubhouse lead.

With no sympathy from the USGA for any player incurring a mud ball, a common occurrence with no favour shown from the golfing gods, players were required to demonstrate fortitude and patience in equal measures on a stop-start day that, at least, managed to get in more play than appeared likely at one juncture of the morning, as competitors sought refuge in the locker room (a tent in all but name).

The famed old East Course was doused with inches of rainfall, which arrived with a vengeance at 8.36am local time and pummelled down for over an hour. With the threat of lightning in the area, and then the time required to get the course playable with a team of 120 squeegee-bearing greenstaff defying the elements, it was more than three and a half hours before players resumed where they had left off.

Longer break

Some, perhaps, might have wished for a longer break. But not Ian Poulter, who had started like a whirlwind of his own. The Englishman, who has reserved his best play for the Ryder Cup but intent on adding a Major title to his CV, birdied his first three holes – the 11th, 12th and 13th – before the siren sounded to halt play. He was a different man on his return, as reality at his audaciousness caught up with him.

Indeed, fears that the course would be taken apart, with some utterly ludicrous predictions of possible 62s or better, proved unfounded. For all of its quirky charm and lack of length, playing to 6,966 yards for the first round, the East Course stood the test of time. The hi-tech drivers, irons and balls that seemingly go forever were confined on a course where the strategic bunkering and thick rough (despite it been mowed on Wednesday night in anticipation of the weather front) proved sufficient defence mechanisms.

The greens were supposed to roll at between 13 to 13½ on the stimpmetre but, due to the rain, were closed to 12. Elsewhere, the USGA showed a little leeway by positioning some tees forward, taking a total of 30 yards off the course’s full yardage.

Many players, though, failed to cope. Pádraig Harrington was forced to grind, a double bogey five on the 17th, his seventh hole, proving particularly destructive.

There, Harrington’s tee-shot was pulled into a greenside bunker where he found a horrendous, plugged lie at the top of the bunker. Unbalanced, he barely escaped the trap and finished in thick rough. His recovery, initially, seemed good. The crowd even applauded as the ball was in mid-air. But it caught more greenside rough and he recorded a double bogey that was followed by a bogey on the 18th.

Harrington eventually found a birdie, on the seventh, to be three over on this round at that stage.

Struggled to conquer

And others, among them Louis Oosthuizen, Keegan Bradley and Sergio Garcia, struggled to conquer the course and the conditions.

In contrast, Waterford amateur Kevin Phelan – fresh off his performance in the Palmer Cup at nearby Wilmington, Delaware, last week where he was the leading European in the defeat to the United States – more than held his own with the world’s top professionals.

Phelan, the 22-year-old student at North Florida University, was unfazed by the conditions or witnessing Phil Mickelson’s name atop the leaderboard as he went about his business with the mindset of a veteran: he even had a 10-footer for birdie on the 16th which would have moved him into a share of the lead.

He missed, but recovered from a bogey on the 18th to birdie the first and move to one under through 10 holes and within touching distance of Mickelson’s lead.

Mickelson might just have had the most unusual preparations for any US Open, arriving in his Gulfstream jet from his home in California just a matter of hours before his tee time. His later arrival was two fold; one, because he wanted to attend his daughter’s graduation, and secondly because he believed all his preparatory work done last week on a reconnaissance trip was all he needed. Lefty was proven to be right.

Starting with a bogey on the 11th, his opening hole, Mickelson rolled his sleeves up thereafter on the 13th, first, seventh and ninth holes – along with some spectacular par saves en route – enabled him to secure the clubhouse lead.