ARDMORE, Pa. — By the time Phil Mickelson got some caffeine in him and began making birdies on the back nine, the fans who braved wild warnings of hail and torrential rain in the opening round of the U.S. Open started to get the idea that something more interesting than the weather was happening at venerable Merion Golf Club. In a place that oozes history, a modern kind of story was unfolding.
Maybe not the kind that would merit a plaque, but for one day at least it was enough to warm the heart of even the most jaded Philadelphia sports fan. Ben Hogan and the 1-iron he hit to win here never seemed more 1950 than it did on this day. Bobby Jones wouldn't have had a clue about jet lag,, or why Mickelson had five wedges in his bag but no driver.
He crossed the country in the middle of the night to get here, though this time it wasn't some bizarre plan that only Mickelson seems to hatch at major championships. It was simply a desire to see his daughter speak at her eighth-grade graduation in Southern California. To him, it was just as important as winning the title that has so painfully eluded him all these years.
"She told me that it's fine. `Stay, it's the U.S. Open. I know how much you care about it,' " Mickelson said. "And I told her that I want to be there. I don't want to miss that. I don't want to miss her speech. I don't want to miss her graduation."
He didn't, and she delivered for him. Amanda Mickelson – who nearly made history herself once in the U.S. Open – gave a speech that included a reference to the fictional anchorman Ron Burgundy, with her proud dad flashing that big Mickelson grin from the audience.
He ended up delivering, too, not only making his 7:11 a.m. tee time but rallying on his back nine to shoot a 3-under 67 for the first-round lead in the clubhouse in the rain-delayed Open. Just another day in Phil's world, or as the fans at Merion kept reminding him "PHIL-a-del-phia."
It helps, of course, that Mickelson owns a $60 million Gulfstream 5 private jet he can hop on anytime he wants. Not many flights out of San Diego to Philadelphia at that time of night, and who knows what might happen in baggage claim to his clubs.
"This is not that out of the ordinary," he insisted. "I do this about six, 10 times a year where I fly back East red eye, play some outing and then come home."
This isn't just some outing, though. It's a tournament that has haunted Mickelson, one he desperately wants to win in the twilight of his career.
He nearly won it the first time the day before Amanda was born, losing a Sunday duel to the late Payne Stewart in 1999 that was the first of his five runner-up finishes. He played with a beeper in his bag, ready to walk off the course the moment his wife Amy went into labor.
Another loss was equally dramatic, though not as personal. In 2006 at Winged Foot, Mickelson had a one-shot lead on the final hole when he tried to pull off a miracle recovery shot and hit a tree to make a double bogey that gave Geoff Ogilvy the title.
"I am such an idiot," a devastated Mickelson said afterward.
The plan this year was a bit more convoluted than others, though with Mickelson there's usually some sort of twist. He was always going to go to Amanda's graduation, but was going to practice a few days here first before fueling up the Gulfstream and heading home.
After seeing what a muddy mess Merion was on Monday, though, Mickelson went home early and spent the time fine tuning his short game in his backyard practice complex. Then it was a 6 p.m. graduation on Wednesday, wheels up two hours later and landing in Philadelphia at 3:30 a.m
. A few hours sleep and study on the plane, another hour or so when he got here, and he was ready to go.
"It might be abnormal, but it actually worked out really well," Mickelson said. "I got all my work done on Merion last when I was here a week and a half ago. I knew exactly how I wanted to play the golf course, given the conditions, given different wind conditions, clubs I was going to be hitting, where I was going to be and the shots that I was going to have."
Mickelson, who carried five wedges but no driver in his bag for the relatively short Merion course, promptly went out and bogeyed the first hole. But he came back after a rain delay to play 3-under on his back nine, aided by an energy drink at the turn that got him refocused.
Now he's not only in the enviable position of being high on the leaderboard in the U.S. Open, but having plenty of time to get his rest. He would have had an afternoon tee time anyway on Friday, but after two suspensions for weather it will be delayed even more because other players have to complete their first rounds.
Mickelson has three green jackets, 41 career wins and a large fortune from earnings and endorsements. He's the most popular player in the game, one of the most popular athletes in sports.
But he's 42 and approaching an age where players traditionally no longer compete for major titles. So when he was asked after his round how he feels about his relationship with the Open he was a bit more reflective than usual.
"If I'm able, and I believe I will, if I'm able to ultimately win a U.S. Open, I would say that it's great," Mickelson said. "But if I never get that win, then it would be a bit heart-breaking."
For the player and his legion of fans.
Not nearly as heartbreaking, though, as missing his daughter's graduation.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http:twitter.com/timdahlberg