Pride of Ireland Phelan shows the pros how it's done
Relaxed Mickelson flies in late to set early pace at rain-delayed US Open but Waterford amateur steals show with fabulous one-over opening round
KEVIN PHELAN followed in the footsteps of golfing legends on the East Course at Merion, the young Irish amateur making a little piece of personal history with a fabulous performance in the weather-hit first round of the US Open.
As Phil Mickelson made America swoon with an astonishing trans-continental dash from California to the top of the leaderboard with a masterful 67, Phelan became the toast of Irish golf with an heroic first round performance of his own.
Phelan (22), soon to graduate from North Florida University in Jacksonville and the pride of West Waterford Golf Club, must have copper-fastened is place on the Great Britain and Ireland Walker Cup team with the maturity he showed in compiling a stout-hearted 71.
The youngster, who was born in New York, but spent much of his childhood in his father's native city of Waterford, even putted for a share of the lead in golf's most gruelling championship.
After easing to one-under with a sweet birdie at 15, his fourth hole, Phelan stood over a 10-foot putt for another at 16, which would have left him rubbing shoulders at the top of the scoreboard with Mickelson and another Masters champion Charl Schwartzel.
"I was playing well for a while there," he said with trademark modesty. "I wasn't thinking of putts to share the lead, just trying to make them. It's obviously a tough course, so you try to take chances when you can."
Phelan showed his strength of character at the next, the hugely intimidating, 243 yards 17th hole, by getting down in two from the front edge of the green, hitting a superb 60-foot lag putt up the slope to inches.
Sadly, he three-putted from distance for bogey five at 18, a real meat-grinder of a hole, but rebounded with a facile birdie at Merion's par-four first.
Perhaps a gruelling day, which was extended to near marathon proportions for Phelan by a three hour 32 minutes storm delay in mid-round, took its toll as he three-putted from around 30 feet for bogey at five and failed to get up-and-down after flying the green with his tee shot at nine.
Yet Phelan, who admitted the enormity of the occasion got to him as a teenager when he first qualified for the 2010 US Open at Pebble Beach, splendidly fulfilled his intention of meeting the lofty challenge of the historic East Course on his own terms.
It's a day he'll never forget.
Mickelson (42) relied on raw adrenaline and several cups of cups of coffee during the storm delay to forge two-ahead of Belgium's Nicolas Colsaerts in the clubhouse.
After making the remarkable decision to leave rain-soaked Philadelphia last Monday evening and head back home, where he wanted to attend his daughter's junior school graduation on Wednesday evening, Mickelson only got back into Philadelphia at 4.30 yesterday morning after an all-night flight from Carlsbad.
Mickelson's remarkable decision didn't look very clever when he three-putted the opening hole, but he shook any fatigue out of his bones two holes later with a birdie at the short 13th on his way to his three-under total.
His plan to play without a driver in his bag and carry five wedges was also vindicated as he tries to crown a record five runner-up finishes at the US Open with a long-awaited victory.
Intense interest focussed on the 11th tee early yesterday morning when Padraig Harrington was scheduled to start his round, though it wasn't the Dubliner the world's media had come to see. Instead, Sergio Garcia, Harrington's playing-companion in a three-ball which also included 2009 Open Champion Stewart Cink, was the centre of attention.
In the most recent of several brushes with notoriety, Garcia fired an offensive, racist jibe at Tiger Woods at the European Tour's annual awards banquet last month, which went viral around the world of golf following their widely-publicised spat at Sawgrass a fortnight earlier.
Garcia's three-man police protection team could not protect him from golfing horrors of his own making, particularly when he hooked his tee shots at 14 and 15 onto Golf House Road and out of bounds.
"Ho, ho, ho ... hit a provisional, Garcia," one fan chortled in the gallery, well out of the Spaniard's earshot, after his right foot slipped on the 14th tee and his ball flew left, bouncing on the road and into the garden of a private house.
There was thunderclap before Garcia could play his reload from the fairway, followed within seconds by the sirens which sent the field scurrying for shelter from the incoming storm. He finished-out a double-bogey six at 14 when play resumed.
Remarkably, Garcia then yanked his tee shot at 15 onto the concrete further down Golf House Road, this time stumbling to a disastrous eight. After hitting his second ball through the fairway, he left his approach in the front bunker; thinned his escape through the green and took three more to get down from the fringe.
If dropping six shots in two nightmare holes wasn't bad enough, Garcia stumbled to another three-putt bogey at 18. Still, a birdie-eagle rally at Merion's first and second holes as he completed a fighting 73 revived the Spaniard's survival hopes.
Harrington also shot three-over par 73 and had too much on his own plate to be concerned with Garcia's problems. From the off, Ireland's three-times Major champion never appeared quite at his ease on a golf course he expected to play far longer and tougher than yesterday's 6,966 yards.
After finding the middle of the first fairway with his rescue club, Harrington's approach came to rest 25 feet short of the cup and he did well to save par when his first putt up the slope charged nearly six feet past.
He scrambled well on the second, pitching nicely up to hill to four feet and holing for par after a sweet-looking approach from mid-fairway had sucked-back off the false front of the green and nearly 20 yards back down the hill.
Yet there was no saving himself from a poor tee shot on 13, the shortest hole in Major championship golf this year and measuring just 102 yards long..
After hooking his ball into a back bunker, Harrington played a nice shot off the slope behind the front pin, but still had a ticklish three-footer. It trickled downhill and horseshoed out off the right lip, leading to a bogey four on, arguably, the easiest hole on the course.
The Irishman fell victim to cruel fate on 17 when his ball plugged in an impossible lie close to the top of an alpine slope and just beneath the hairy lip of the left greenside bunker.
He blasted his ball with all his might and it landed just in front of him in the deep rough. In the fringe in three, Harrington took another two to get down for a double-bogey five, followed in quick-succession by another dropped shot at Merion's intimidating 18th hole.
This time, after missing the fairway right, he barely advanced his ball 10 yards in the heavy rough, making his up-and-down bogey there look eminently acceptable. These are frustrating days, indeed, for Ireland three-time Major champion.
As the weather closed in once again, Rory McIlroy was one-under through four, while Darren Clarke (through eight) and Graeme McDowell (through five holes, including a double-bogey seven at the second) lagged well back on three-over. Woods, playing alongside McIlroy, had a sloppy start and was one-over par when the play was halted for the second time
67 P Mickelson
69 N Colsaerts (Bel)
70 T Clarke (Rsa), C Schwartzel (Rsa), J Kelly, R Fowler, J Day (Aus)
71 D Johnson, B Watson, S Stricker, J Rose (Eng), G Coetzee (Rsa), C Hoffman, J Huh, I Poulter (Eng), S Stallings, *K Phelan (Irl)
72 H Mahan, S Cink, S Stefani, N Thompson, M Weir (Can), CT Pan(Ch)
73 N Watney, P Casey (Eng), M Siem (Ger), P Harrington (Irl), S Garcia (Sp), F Hacobson (Swe), *M Kim, J Peterson, C Doak (Sco), K Sutherland, J Van Zyl (Rsa), R Nelson
74 P Hansen (Swe), L Glover, M Kuchar, B Snedeker, D Lingmerth (Swe), M Laird (Sco), J Dufner, H Stenson (Swe), S Khan (Eng), R Karlsson (Swe), JB Blake, B Jobe, R Hutchinson
75 C Kresge, A Baddley (Aus), L Oosthuizen (Rsa), B weekley, M Manassero (It), R Palmer, B Weekley, D Labelle II, M Manassero (It), M Weibring, J Hahn, M Hughes (Can)
76 R Yip (Can), J Parry (Eng), T Potter Jnr, H Fujita (Jap), M Campbell (NZ), W Collins, H Varney III
77 K Bradley, B Haas, R Sabbatini (Rsa), YE Yang (SKor)
78 R Karlberg (Swe), Y Ueda (Jap), D Hearn (Can), G Sisk
79 R Moore
80 R Tambellini, R Garrigus
81 A Svoboda, C McElyea
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