ARDMORE, Pa. — For one day, at least, it was too bad Tiger Woods played golf for a living, and not baseball. Stepping into an evacuation shuttle a little past 6:10 p.m. Thursday, he’d have loved to see his abbreviated round totally washed out by Merion’s rains. Instead, where he stood was a place he did not envision he’d be in trying to get out to a fast start at the 113th U.S. Open – he faced 4 feet for bogey at the difficult, par-4 fifth hole just to stick at 2 over par through five holes.
A long day in which his early-afternoon tee time was pushed all the way to Happy Hour was only growing longer, as all those who teed off in the day’s second wave had to stick around to see if Mother Nature (and enough daylight) would allow for a few more holes before darkness fell over suburban Philadelphia. Following the day’s second delay, this one lasting less than an hour, Woods would return to play six more holes. He did not, however, gain any more ground against par on a Merion layout that was standing up quite well to the world’s best players.
“Everyone on TV was saying that we were going to rip this place up," said Jason Day, who finished at level-par 70. "I don't see it. It’s not as easy as everyone thinks.” Only 15 players (two of whom completed their rounds) are in red numbers for the abbreviated round.
The scoreboard at day's end showed that Woods left the golf course still at 2 over, six shots behind leader Luke Donald, but that gap would seem the least of his worries. For one, he appeared to have tweaked his left wrist hitting a shot out of the wet, thick rough on his first hole of the day. On at least three occasions he winced after hitting a shot, including on his last full swing of the day, an iron from the left rough at the par-4 11th that cleared the creek but finished well short of the green. He would wedge to about 4 feet, and when the horn sounded to suspend play for the day at 8:16 p.m., he opted to face his par putt Friday. Players were asked to be back in position to resume the first round at 7:15 a.m.
Secondly, as was the case at Memorial, Woods struggled mightily on the greens. He had 20 putts through 10 holes, and never did appear to be comfortable with the pace of the greens, coming up short on several strokes.
The first interruption in Woods’ round – play was stopped with he, Rory McIlroy and Adam Scott standing on the fifth green – didn’t seem that it would do anything but benefit Woods, who had a dangerous combination working: He was missing fairways and struggling direly with Merion’s suddenly wet and slowed-down greens.
He missed the fairway right at the short opening hole and would shake his left wrist after pounding a wedge out of the gnarly rough onto the green. Three putts later, he was 1 over.
A birdie at the par-5 second was offset by another bogey at the 256-yard, par-3 third, where he missed the green left and followed with a poor chip. A misjudged, low-darting pitch carried too long and checked up too late at the par-5 fourth, where each of Woods’ fellow competitors, Rory McIlroy and Adam Scott, birdied. He would only two-putt for par from 25 feet. And then there was the difficult fifth, measuring 504 yards. Another missed fairway (right, this time with his driver), a fairway wood from the green hay that kept running until it was over the green, an abysmal chip that made it halfway to the hole and a first putt that screeched to a halt 4 feet short. It wasn’t pretty.
“Nice lag,” bellowed one overserved gallery member. Big groan.
And then, mercifully, the horn sounded, signaling suspension of play, the second time play had been suspended on the day. And for Woods, who would return to the golf course within the hour, it was hoped the horn might signal some sort of wake-up call. He came out strongly, making a 45-footer for birdie at No. 6, and was in position to get back to even par with a classy approach to 8 feet at No. 8. But the putt died off short of the hole, and the putter stayed ice cold as Woods three-putted for bogey at the par-3 ninth (gassing his first putt 6 feet past) and then missed an uphill 5-footer for birdie at 10.
Woods is a three-time U.S. Open champion and, as a four-time PGA Tour winner already in 2013, the prohibitive favorite coming into Merion. He hasn’t always been the fastest starter, though. Last June at Olympic Club (where he tied for 21st), he opened with 69; prior to that, the last time he’d shot an opening round in the 60s at his national Open was in 2002, the year he won his second title at Bethpage Black.
The best news for Woods regarding Thursday’s struggles? He didn’t have many hours to look back and think about it.
“It’s going to be a fast night,” Woods said before leaving. “I’ve got a lot of holes to play tomorrow. Hopefully I can play a little better than I did today.”