ARDMORE, PA - Clouds gave way to sun, squeegees gave way to putters, and the 13th hole gave way to birdies during the first round of the U.S. Open's return to Merion Golf Club.
Drenching storms caused a 3 1/2-hour delay early Thursday, halting play less than two hours after it began. When the golfers returned to the course, one thing was evident: A 102-yard hole was easy pickings for the world's best players.
Nearly a quarter of the first 108 birdies scored were at the par-3 No. 13, Including one by 2011 Masters champion Charl Schwartzel, who used the hole to start a run of three consecutive birdies that included a chip-in at No. 15.
The gimmie hole aside, Merion looked as challenging as advertised, despite the onslaught of storms that softened the course during the past week. The slanting greens and heavy rough valued precision over power, and no one's score got below 3 under by mid-afternoon. Ian Poulter had quite the start, with only one par spaced among four birdies and three bogeys through nine holes.
At one point, there were nine players under par -- four at 2 under and five at 1 under -- and two of them were amateurs. Intriguingly, Cheng-Tsung Pan of Taiwan and Kevin Phelan of Ireland didn't mimic the pros at No. 13: Both parred the hole and picked up a birdie or two elsewhere.
Sergio Garcia birdied No. 13, but that was an aberration in a terrible start for the Spaniard, who has spent the lead-up to the tournament trying to make amends with Tiger Woods. Garcia had a quadruple bogey, double bogey and a bogey in his first five holes, but he later went birdie-eagle at the start of the front nine to climb back to a more respectable 4 over.
Garcia was greeted with mild applause and a few audible boos when he was introduced at the start of his round. He is playing his first tournament in the U.S. since a recent exchange with Woods hit a low point when Garcia said he would serve fried chicken if Woods came to dinner during the Open. Garcia has since apologized for the remark. He shook hands with Woods on the practice range this week and left a note in Woods' locker. He was also noticeably friendly to the gallery during Wednesday's practice round, stopping several times to sign autographs.
Cliff Kresge, a Floridian ranked No. 551 in the world, hit the first tee shot of the tournament at 6:45 a.m. The horn blew at 8:36 a.m., and thunder, lightning and downpours followed, sending everyone scurrying for cover.
Safety was a concern on a course that required fans to take long shuttle rides from remote parking lots. 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.
Play resumed shortly after noon, pushing back the tee time for the marquee group of Woods, Rory McIlroy and Adam Scott to 4:44 p.m.
Phil Mickelson and Steve Stricker saw the notoriously tough greens live up to their reputation after just a few minutes of play when each had a birdie putt roll 8 feet past the hole, Mickelson at No. 11 and Stricker at No. 12. Both ended up with bogeys.
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 the 3- 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, as most everyone else did, and picked up another stroke at No. 1.
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."
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.