ARDMORE, Pa. — Rarely described as conventional, Phil Mickelson has tried lots of different ways to win the US Open, with no luck. Owning a record five runner-up finishes, any fortune he’s had in this tournament certainly wouldn’t be considered good.
Maybe he’s finally hit on something.
While most, if not all, of his fellow competitors in the 113th US Open were sleeping somewhere near Merion Golf Club on Wednesday night, Mickelson was boarding his private plane in Carlsbad, Calif., after attending his daughter’s eighth-grade graduation. He caught a few hours’ sleep on the cross-country flight, landed in Pennsylvania at 3:30 a.m. local time, slept another hour, then arrived at Merion, bleary-eyed but ready.
His play, bolstered by parental pride, took over from there. By shooting a 3-under-par 67 on Thursday, Mickelson was alone in the clubhouse lead — but one shot behind Luke Donald — when first-round play was called at roughly 8:20 p.m. with exactly half of the 156-player field still on the course. A day that was projected to include heavy rain, strong wind, and even some hail was interrupted twice, for a total of 4 hours, 17 minutes. But more golf was squeezed in than many expected.
It’s Mickelson’s lowest opening-round score in a major since a 67 at the 2010 Masters (which he won), and matches his best first round at the US Open in 23 starts. It’s the first time, though, that he logged so many miles through the air a few hours before he was expected on the tee.
“It might be abnormal, but it actually worked out really well,” Mickelson said. “I got all my work done on Merion when I was here a week and a half ago. I knew exactly how I wanted to play the golf course, where I was going to be, the shots that I was going to have.”
The plan, not surprisingly, is unconventional: five wedges in his bag, no driver.
So instead of hanging at Merion and taking his chances with possible bad weather during practice days on Tuesday and Wednesday, Mickelson flew home on Monday, sharpened his game in ideal weather, then attended daughter Amanda’s ceremony on Wednesday night, in which she had a speaking part and, according to Mickelson, delivered a crowd-pleasing joke. The ceremony began at 6 p.m. California time, and he was wheels-up by 8.
Amanda has a history with the US Open. Well, sort of. Mickelson’s wife, Amy, was pregnant with their first child and due while Mickelson was in contention at the 1999 US Open. Swearing that he would leave the tournament no matter the scenario so he could attend the birth, Mickelson tied for second at Pinehurst that year, while Amy was beginning to go into labor during the final round, which was Father’s Day. He made it home for Amanda’s birth the next day.
This time, he made it home for her graduation.
“She told me, ‘It’s fine, stay, it’s the US Open, I know how much you care about it.’ I told her that I want to be there,” Mickelson said. “I don’t want to miss that. I don’t want to miss her speech. I don’t want to miss her graduation. She spent nine years at that school, she’s worked very hard, and I’m very proud of her.”
Mickelson opened with a bogey at No. 11, but was flawless from there, making four birdies and two clutch par saves on Nos. 5-6. It probably helped that Mickelson was paired with friends Keegan Bradley and Steve Stricker, both of whom took note of the literal journey the popular lefthander booked for himself this week.
“He’s had a crazy last 24 hours,” said Bradley, who shot 77. “Sometimes that helps, you’re not even thinking about it. But he’s going to get a lot of time to rest. He’s in good shape.”
Said Stricker (71): “Flying in at 4 o’clock this morning and not having really any preparation [here] the last three days — I know he was here earlier — I thought he played great. He struck the ball nicely, putted well, hit a lot of fairways.”
Oh, and that joke that Amanda told? According to Mickelson, she pointed out the accomplishments of six or seven of her classmates, then quoted the movie “Anchorman” by saying, “In the words of the great Ron Burgundy, we’re kind of a big deal.”
Amanda’s dad definitely was a big deal on Thursday. He’ll resume the chase for that elusive US Open title sometime on Friday afternoon, under the best-case scenario; play is scheduled to resume at 7:15 a.m.
When it does, Donald will be in the lead at 4 under after making three straight birdies, including a 6-footer at No. 13 just before play was suspended. Also at 3 under is Masters champion Adam Scott, who buried a short birdie putt on No. 11. None of the three players at 2 under had completed their rounds: Defending champion Webb Simpson had played eight holes, Matthew Goggin and Alistair Presnell six.
Weather partially ruled the day, but Mickelson owned it, even though he started three time zones and almost 3,000 miles away. Since it worked so well, would Mickelson consider commuting? He smiled broadly. “I don’t want to push it, no.”Michael Whitmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.