ARDMORE, Pa. -- The first round of the U.S. Open: one soggy reporter's diary of a walk in the rain.
6:15 a.m. -- Begin the drive to Merion Golf Club. Skies are cloudy, winds are threatening. Weather reports are biblical. Philadelphia is a weather-obsessed city. Every storm is the Storm of the Century, so when a legit storm with an actual name is on the way, look out. This is a derecho, a long, straight, deep and ominous front, and it produced tornados in Iowa. Local news suggests hoarding dry goods and repenting sins. I am on Lancaster Avenue, driving through six tax brackets in less than four minutes.
7:30 a.m. -- Camped out at the 15th green and waiting for some high-profile groupings to arrive. The groundskeepers are placing the hole, a process which involves a tape measure, a level, and some PVC pipe. It looks like they are installing shelves, only underground.
I choose the 15th for its close proximity to the safety of the media center, and because of its fabulously complicated topography. The green runs back-left to front-right, but toward the middle is a depression that looks like an eroded old French drain designed to wash golf balls away. The cup is placed right at the lip of the drain.
7:45 a.m. -- At the end of his work, a groundskeeper sinks a 20-footer. The crowd in the grandstand cheers.
7:54 a.m. -- A scorekeeper fastens a "Weather Warning" sign, with a cute little kindergarten-worthy "let's learn about storms" drawing of gray clouds and a jagged lightning bolt, to the front of the scoreboard. The sign really should have been drilled into place about 7:30 p.m. Wednesday.
7:59 a.m. -- Bubba Watson, Dustin Johnson, and Nicolas Colsaerts appear around the sharp dogleg on the 15th fairway. Watson's approach is short, landing in the French drain and rolling endlessly, depressingly toward him. Johnson and Colsaerts fare better, dropping their shots behind the hole, using the rollback to their advantage.
Watson is forced to two-putt from distance. Colsaerts' first putt comes up just a foot short. Johnson, from about three feet away but coping with some tricky geography, taps an uphill crescent that rolls down just inches high of the hole. Everybody pars.
8:15 a.m. -- Phil Mickelson, Steve Stricker, and Keegan Bradley are next on the horizon. Stricker is in the middle of the fairway. Lefty is on the far left, near out-of-bounds territory, which is a hospitality center, which is a tent in somebody's back yard. Poor Bradley is so deep in a bunker to the right that only his head is visible. He looks like a meerkat.
Stricker delivers a Holy Cow approach shot. It drops on the back right of the green, just at the fringe, then rolls obediently to within four feet of the hole. Lefty reaches the front of the green without incident. Johnson's escape from the bunker thuds a few yards in front of the green. "You're allowed to boo," someone in the grandstand jokes. Philly crowd.
Bradley pitches onto the green, but his first putt is wide, and he is visibly irritated after his tap in. Bogey. Lefty two-putts for par. Stricker birdies.
8:22 a.m. -- A course security guard announces that the USGA has issued a weather warning and strongly suggests that spectators seek shelter. "That does not mean you have to go," the guard assures. No one leaves, except to follow the Lefty group. I join them on a trip to the Quarry Hole, because if anything suggests safety in a thunderous downpour, it's a quarry.
8:25 a.m. -- Johnson's drive on the 16th disappears into the quarry. A poor course official climbs down to search for it. In an hour, we may have to search for him.
8:36 a.m. -- Play is suspended. You can tell because Lefty and others are hustling off the course with a police escort (the horns were not audible on much of the course). You cannot tell from the lighted signs in the spectator pavilion, which read "WEATHER ALERT: There are no current weather alerts at this time." Never trust a flashing screen at a wooden sign venue.
8:50:00 a.m. -- Flash of lightning.
8:50:03 a.m. -- Clap of thunder.
9:35 a.m. -- Someone opens the back door of the media center so we can take pictures of the rain. I snap a few. This ranks just below "Taking pictures of other reporters waiting for Manti Te'o while waiting for Manti Te'o" among my journalistic accomplishments.
10:10 a.m. -- With rain slowing, it is time for an intrepid journey onto the course, where anarchy rules. Spectators are nodding and winking at the green ropes. A fan stands in the driving area on the 15th and shares his shot thoughts. "All those deep bunkers … the right is just death. DEATH." Dude has been listening to too many weather forecasts. Or perhaps talking to Keegan Bradley.
10:35 a.m. -- Rain has stopped, though there is a charming little waterfall trickling through the quarry at the 16th. The line of the beer garden is long, straight, deep, and ominous, a derecho of boredom and thirst.
11:07 a.m. -- Players are cleared to return to the range. Play will resume in an hour. Next line of storms due in six hours. So let's hustle guys.
12:07 p.m. -- The trumpet sounds. The charge begins. But on this golf course, early birds win. The grandstands around the 17th hole, where Lefty's group is about to resume play, are filled to capacity. I perch near the landing area on the 18th. The tee shots land with a squishy thwirp. Bradley, fresh from a triple bogey misadventure on the quarry two holes ago, places a perfect drive in the middle of the fairway. He pars the hole, which is good news when you are five over.
12:45 p.m. -- A great seat in the 17th hole grandstand provides a perfect view of a possible train wreck. Sergio Garcia is coming, and he is six over par. The rain delay left him buried in a bunker on the 14th, which he double bogeyed out of. That led to chaos on the 15th, a quadruple bogey best described as a tour of the Streets of Ardmore.
But Garcia has nothing on his group-mates on the 17th. His tee shot lands short of the pin and dribbles down a steep slip 'n' slide of green to the fringe, but Padraig Harrington finds a deep sand dune on the left while Stewart Cink plops into some gentler beach on the right. Cink scrambles out with a bogey, but Harrington weed-whacks some sand and fescue before double bogeying. Garcia calmly chips up the slope and puts for par.
Ian Poulter, an early leader after four birdies on his first five holes, arrives after the Garcia group. He tee shot lands far, far from the pin, his long putt pulls a little to his right, and his short putt misses by inches. The greens are s-l-0-w, like rolling a ball across an unmade bed. Poulter fades slowly as the round goes on and finishes +1, 71.
1:20 p.m. -- The area between the 17th hole and the spectator's pavilion smells like rotting fescue, day-old crabs, mid-price cigars, and the beer your uncle used to buy for six bucks per case before the health department shuttered the brewery.
1:45 p.m. -- Back at the media center for a while. Stricker has found some low-lying pine branches to rest his ball under on the third hole. Half the golf officials in Pennsylvania arrive to determine its playability. Meanwhile, the National Weather Service drops another bright blotch of flashing colors just west of Harrisburg. And Garcia eagles on two.
2:20 p.m. -- Begin long walk to the 10th hole to see the Lefty group and others finish. It is now sunny, and humid enough to make the statue of a cat sweat. The tenth is not too far, but security requires an elaborate detour crossing the second, fifth, and fourth, with stops in Villanova, Bala Cynwyd, and Kookamunga. Crowds are shoulder-to-shoulder as they make their way to the Lefty Zone, and our feet sink in the mud when we stand too long. Every crossing looks like a reenactment of the Battle of Agincourt.
3:10 p.m. -- In position at the tenth hole, a relatively easy par-4 with a green shaped like Mickey Mouse, the pin (as a course volunteer noted) in his left eye. News that Lefty has picked up a stroke to reach -2 arrives by wooden scoreboard, the next best thing to carrier pigeon.
3:30 p.m. -- The Bubba Watson group arrives. Johnson drives his tee shot into a bunker in the middle of a thick pasture, than escapes with a terrific wedge shot and scrambles for birdie (+1, 71). Watson birdies with the help of a smooth approach shot that dies a foot from the cup (+1, 71). Nicolas Colsaerts pars (-1, 69).
3:45 p.m. -- A flock of photographers and throng of fans: Lefty has reached the 10th, now three under. Steve Stricker upstages him with a tee shot that lands just 20 yards from the bottom of the green. He birdies to finish +1, 71. Keegan Bradley, unable to buy a break at seven over, two puts for par. (+7, 78)
And Lefty? He pars to finish -3, 67, in the lead among finishers. It was a quiet round, taking birdies as they came and playing for par everywhere else, with big par saves on the fifth and sixth. "Those two par putts, those are the momentum builders," he later said. "They actually give you more of a boost than birdies do."
Garcia, playing Merion like a roller coaster, later birdied on the 10th for a coulda-been-worse +3, 73. "I guess I was just making my week a little bit tougher," he layer said. Harrington also finishes +3, 73; Cink +2, 72.
4:44 p.m. -- Tiger tees off while I talk Tebow on a Tampa talk show. Life is strange. But not as strange as the suddenly rosy weather forecast. Storms surge north, storms surge to the south, but greater Philly finds itself in the middle of a smooth fairway, a break in the derecho.
5:25 p.m. -- Tiger's tee shots are not making any highlight reels after three holes. On the other hand, Rory McIlroy drills a right bunker on three as if he was aiming for it. Adam Scott drops his beside the pin. Scott birdies. Tiger bogies. McIlroy recovers for par. Game on.
5:35 p.m. -- Hours of clear skies lead to a reckless plan: leave the comfort and quick information of the media center, stroll down to the gorgeous par-3 13th hole, wait for the Big Three, watch them there, hustle back to the 17th to catch the Tiger Trio on yet another picturesque par-3, watch them tee off on 18th, return to media center, wax poetic about experiences.
5:45 p.m. -- It's raining again. Slowly at first, then steady and insistent. I pull up at the 17th to watch Estanislao Goya par to remain two-under and among the leaders, and Peter Hedblom birdie with a long putt to go three under.
6:09 p.m. -- The horn sounds as the Goya group tees off. Play suspends so the course can once again absorb and shed water like an overtaxed bath towel.
6:45 p.m. -- Players sheltered in place during the delay, and word comes as the skies clear again that they will resume play until dusk. Behind the 15th hole, Scott Langley, Chris Williams, and Morgan Hoffmann emerge from SUVs and begin to stretch.
It's game on, once again, but with the grandstands soaked, balls making little fart noises when they strike the fairway, and the Big Three far away on the front nine, there is little to do but retreat to shelter and watch like a spectator. On the big screen, Tiger labors, grimaces, scrambles on one hole but squanders potential birdies with errant putts on the other. On the big screen, Scott pulls away with birdies on eight and eleven. On the big screen, Ernie Els clubs a four-iron off the tee and rattles the ball off the pin. Els did not tee off until 5:06 PM. Who would have expected him to play a half a round today?
8:21 p.m. -- Dusk. Scott is three under through 11 holes. McIlory is at even par, Tiger is two over through 10. Luke Donald is four under through 13, but Mickelson is the leader among those who finished the round.
Moments later: Leave Merion wet, sweaty, muddy, exhausted, and amazed. A large percentage of the field got their round in. The course held its own. The fans persevered, made the best of things, and also left wet, sweaty, muddy, exhausted, and amazed. The U.S. Open survived the derecho, Mickelson delighted fans with another star turn, Garcia played the foil well -- brilliant and ridiculous at equal turns -- and the Tiger Trio had its moments. There was something for everyone.
Now if you will excuse me, I have to throw away my sneakers.