Phil Mickelson has come up just shy of a U.S. Open title five times in his professional career, and with pressure mounting to add one of golf’s most prestigious trophies to his resume, it would have been understandable for Lefty to put in a little extra practice for this year’s event.
Instead, he flew back to San Diego for his daughter’s eighth grade graduation, arriving at Merion Golf Club just before his opening round, as noted by Kyle Porter of CBS Sports.
Mickelson chose to play his round without the long stick in favor of a fifth wedge, and the decision paid off. With a three-under 67 on Thursday, the world No. 10 and five-time U.S. Open runner-up positioned himself atop the leaderboard to end his round.
Luke Donald would play the first 13 holes of his round at four-under before darkness resulted in a premature end to the day, but there’s no guarantee Donald can hold onto his lead when he completes the round Friday morning.
Donald isn’t alone, though. With two separate weather delays resulting in over four hours of lost time, a large portion of the field will turn out at Merion to complete their opening round Friday morning before the start of Round 2.
There’s plenty of golf yet to be played.
But with Mickelson the lone golfer to have completed his round at three-under or better, he’s likely to start Day 2 perched among the top five players on the leaderboard. On a day of discontinuity and on a track softened and soaked by constant rains, Mickelson couldn’t have asked for a better result.
A lot of what happens Friday will depend on weather conditions and how well the course holds up to Mother Nature, though.
Playing at under 7,000 yards, Merion is a course that doesn’t necessitate a lot of distance—made evident by Lefty’s preference for his three-wood throughout the round. But with fairways soggier than they otherwise would have been, length off the tee will come into play Friday, especially if rain persists.
Even so, course conditions didn’t seem to bother Mickelson much Thursday. He wasn’t overly accurate off the tee, but he did get up and down as well as anyone in the field, most notably with a couple tremendous bunker shots off Merion’s firm, sticky sand.
On a day marred by bad putting and plenty of bogeys, Mickelson fired off four birdies and bogeyed just one hole (the par-four 11th) to enter the clubhouse the temporary leader. Given that performance, there’s no reason to expect Mickelson to struggle on Day 2.
The beauty of the Merion’s soggy greens is the opportunity they present golfers who are able to attack tight pin locations—as Mickelson did ad nauseum Thursday. His accuracy off the tee may not have been exactly what he wanted, but little bad can be said of his ball striking.
If Mickelson can pull off a round-leading performance Thursday after what had to be an exhausting two days leading up to the tournament, it’s hard to believe he’ll be any less crisp when he heads out on Day 2.
Look for Lefty to turn in a similar performance in Round 2, regardless of course conditions. As long as his short game holds up for a second straight day, he’ll be in line for the top position on the leaderboard entering the weekend.
Prediction: Mickelson fires off a two-under 68 and ties for the lead at five-under entering Day 3 of the U.S. Open.