Chilling Merion challenge returns game to the purist
What was it Mark Twain said about no winter being as cold as summer in San Francisco? Try Philadelphia in June. Those poor unfortunates returning at 7.13am to finish rounds disrupted on the opening day found Merion a very different host.
Overnight leader Luke Donald shipped two strokes over the closing five holes to fall one behind Phil Mickelson. Rory McIlroy gave up three shots to the course. The mercury was somewhere in the 50s and the wind had switched direction, firing Arctic daggers from the north. Nice.
The draw at the US Open is not ordinarily subject to the vagaries of climate in this way, unlike, for example, at the British Open, where the vicissitudes of the summer can transform a links course from pussycat to penal colony either side of lunch.
Mickelson must have been laughing his jet-lagged socks off watching Tiger Woods and co labour through their finishing holes in waterproofs and woollies.
The 78 players in the late side of Thursday's draw were sent straight back out within 90 minutes of signing for their first-round cards. Mickelson had time to squeeze in a second return trip of the week to California had he wished and still have made it back for his 3.41pm tee time.
Woods' first act of the day was to stroke home a nasty four-footer for his par at the 11th hole. He spent most of the previous evening hacking out of rough that behaves like a Venus fly trap when a golf ball shows up. He was therefore in familiar territory on the 12th when his tee shot drifted off line. Once more it got the better of him resulting in a bogey.
Woods' form here has unleashed the inner psychoanalyst in the golfing intelligentsia. They see in his failure at the Masters, and, yes, fourth place was seen as a shortfall, and his early struggles here as perhaps evidence of a condition never before associated with Woods, a corrosion of his iron psyche in Major championships. The five years that have elapsed since he last won a major at Torrey Pines are, they motion, beginning to weigh heavily as the clock ticks on. Discuss.
Among other calumnies, that would be an insult to this marvellous course. A 62 around here? That is no longer a theme being mined. Merion has returned golf to the purist. The test is not of power and length but of skill and intellect.
Enter Donald. Though he bogeyed the closing two holes, his 68 was his lowest in 30 rounds at the US Open, a quite spectacular statistic at an event thought to favour him. "I think everyone thought that as soon as the course got wet it was going to play easy. The scores certainly aren't showing that. The tough holes are extremely tough," he said.
Three hours after hitting his first shot of the day, Donald was back where he started, beginning his second round from the 11th hole. Temperatures were slowly rising, hitting the high 60s by noon. Donald was down to a tank top by now and, after successive birdies at 12 and 13 had returned him to his overnight score, was marching towards Merion's graveyard stretch with at least a hint of hope.
McIlroy, in the beauty parade with Woods and Adam Scott a couple of groups behind, was also enjoying the first sighting of blue sky in two days with opening birdies at 11 and 12 to reach one over par. Woods birdied the 3rd to reach two over. Every strike now was insurance against the penalties promised on that five-hole stretch from 14 to the clubhouse.
Sure enough Donald dropped a shot at 15 after finding the bunker with his approach. He got away lightly. Playing partner Lee Westwood double-bogeyed 14 and bogeyed 15 and 16. All three feature small landing areas in narrowing fairways. The course set-up allows only 18 inches of tolerance, known as the first cut of rough, after that you are in the deep stuff, assuming you find the ball.
The par-3 17th offered some relief with the tee brought forward 40 yards for the second round. Westwood lasered his tee shot to five feet and gratefully rattled the cup with his birdie putt. There would be another bogey at 18 after a poor tee shot but a 40-foot birdie at the first took him to the turn on four-over-par.
With six holes remaining Donald was holding it together at two- under, one off Mickelson's lead and one of only three still under-par. (© Independent News Service)