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Mickelson is leader as first-round is suspended in U.S. Open

Published: Monday, Aug. 31 2015 10:16 p.m. MDT

Steven Alker, of New Zealand, tees off on the 16th hole during the first round of the U.S. Open golf tournament at Merion Golf Club, Thursday, June 13, 2013, in Ardmore, Pa. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel) (Charlie Riedel, AP) Steven Alker, of New Zealand, tees off on the 16th hole during the first round of the U.S. Open golf tournament at Merion Golf Club, Thursday, June 13, 2013, in Ardmore, Pa. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel) (Charlie Riedel, AP)

ARDMORE, Pa. — If you’ve been monitoring those dreaded weather forecasts, the prospects didn’t look very promising for Thursday’s opening round of the 113th U.S. Open.

The worst-case scenarios bordered on dire.

Merion’s East Course had already absorbed six-plus inches of rain since Friday. And most of the weather computer models were predicting even more, from a storm that included threats of hail and perhaps tornadoes. Seriously. Forget about keeping this treasure of a golf course playable for the best players on the planet. How about worrying about trees or tents getting blown over, or just making sure everyone went home in one piece?

It was exactly the kind of added headache that the USGA or the club membership — which had waited 32 years to host a fifth national championship when some thought that, at slightly less than 7,000 yards, it had pretty much outlived its worthiness — needed to deal with. Not that there was anything that anyone could do about it except hope. Because at some point there’s only so much Matt Shaffer — the guy in charge of making sure these 110 or so acres are ready for prime time — and his staff of 180 can pull off.

As it turned out, Merion and the Open dodged a major bullet. Sometimes it’s all about the breaks.

Yes, there was a 3-hour, 32-minute rain delay late in the morning. And another one around 6 o’clock that lasted 45 minutes. But the really nasty stuff that was supposed to arrive in mid-afternoon passed to the north. Which meant the Allentown area took one for the team. ESPN and NBC should send a thank-you card.

No, the entire 156-man field didn’t get through the first 18 holes. But the players did manage to get a lot of golf in. So if nothing else, the process of trying to at least get regulation play done by Sunday didn’t get backed up anywhere near as badly as it could have been. Some guys will have to come back out at 7:15 this morning to finish up.

One of them is favorite Tiger Woods, who was in the marquee group with world No. 2 Rory McIlroy and recent Masters winner Adam Scott, who is ranked third.

If you’re Merion, you have to be pumped that the layout more than held its own after all this time, despite the fact it was playing about as soft as it can because of all the moisture. Especially after Ian Poulter went out early and birdied his first three holes.

Want another reason to tune in? There was a Phil Mickelson sighting near the top of the leaderboard. Never a bad name to move the needle.

Maybe everyone should fly home to California to attend his daughter’s eighth-grade graduation and arrive back in town 3 ½ hours before his tee time.

Since Mickelson is not going back out until late Friday afternoon, perhaps there’s enough wiggle room to head West again. Even if he can make it only as far as Utah before the plane has to turn around. Just to be safe.

Lefty, who is a record five-time runner-up in this major, carded a three-under-par 67, which left him tied with Scott, one behind Luke Donald, both of whom were still on the course when the proceedings finally were stopped for keeps at 8:16. Each had just made birdie.

The scoring didn’t seem to compute, given the conditions. Or maybe Merion is just that much tougher than they thought.

“I’d love to see the guys who said we’d shoot 62 and 63 to come down and try it,” said Paul Casey, who had a 73.

Duly noted.

The forecast for the next three days appears to be favorable, which only means this place should keep gaining more teeth.

When David Graham won here in 1981, he closed with a 67 to finish at seven-under. Yet only four others ended up in red numbers, and two of those were one-under.

Maybe size doesn’t matter.

Donald, a former No. 1, is one of the best players who hasn’t won a major. And he really hasn’t come close that often. But he had five birds and a bogey (at No. 5, which is certainly no sin) with the rugged five-hole closing stretch to go.

“I feel like I’m in pretty good control of my game,” said Donald, who closed with three straight birds. “It’s nice to get off to such a good start. That’s what you want to do.”

Scott, who also started on the first, has played 11. He, too, has one bogey, also at the fifth. He hasn’t finished outside the top 15 in his last six majors, the lowest being last year’s Open at the Olympic Club. That was also his best finish in this major. And this run has all come with Steve Williams, Tiger’s former caddie, on his bag.

Speaking of which, Woods is at plus-2 through 11, in case you took him with the first pick in the office pool. And he seemed to hurt his left wrist at the fifth when he hit a five-wood out of the rough. So there’s that story line moving onward.

Three are at two-under, including defending champion Webb Simpson. He’s played eight holes. Mathew Goggin and Australia’s Alistair Presnell, neither of whom probably were taken in any pool, have played six.

Nine are bunched at one-under. The only one who finished is Nicolas Colsaerts. Lee Westwood, who’s been trying to win a major forever, has put 13 holes behind him.

A mere 19 are in the scrum at even. Five have finished, including 2011 Masters champ Charl Schwartzel and Rickie Fowler, who performed so well here in the 2009 Walker Cup. And Jason Day, who was leading the Masters in April with three holes to go. Of those who have work left to do, 2011 winner McIlroy (who’s also the reigning PGA champ) has navigated 11 holes, while two-time champ Ernie Els, who won the British Open last July, is through eight.

“I told (USGA executive director Mike Davis) this is the best setup I’ve ever seen for a U.S. Open,” Mickelson applauded. “I think what I love ... (is) they made the hard holes even harder. You’re going to be able to separate yourself from the field by making pars. But on the easy holes, they didn’t trick them up and take away your birdie opportunities.

“This was as easy as this golf course is going to play. And we are struggling, because it’s such a penalizing golf course. They’re some of the most pitched greens we’ve ever seen, and they’re very quick. It’s a course that’s withstood the test of time, and it’s challenging the best. I think it’s going to get even more difficult.”

Just like most other U.S. Opens. So maybe it’s OK to exhale now.

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