ARDMORE, Pa. — "YABBA DABBA DOO!"
Fred Flintstone's cry rang over the area around the first tee of Merion Golf Club on Thursday and what it lacked in current cultural relevancy it made up for in volume. A portion of the crowd groaned over the buffoon's ceremonial first offering. Yabba dabba doo? Had he really yelled that?
He had really yelled that, but the crowd's attention quickly turned back to Tiger Woods, who was working on a grimace of his own. It had nothing to do with a random fan trying to glom his way into the spotlight. No, this was the product of a first drive that Woods pushed deep into the U.S. Open's menacing rough and set up a difficult second shot that may have left him with a wrist injury that could have lasting effects.
The time was 4:44 and the afternoon was growing long.
Woods' day, however, was just beginning.
Truthfully, the day's previous time without the world's most famous golfer felt a bit weird. Afternoon tee times are the norm on the tour, but the late tee time extended the Tiger-free course past its usual times. Try to imagine Lebron James making his first appearance with five minutes left in a game, or Jimmie Johnson joining a race with 10 miles to go. That was a bit how Thursday felt, when a weather-delayed day pushed the debut of many golf stars all the way from lunch to dinner time.
Indeed, by the time that Woods showed up for his tee time with Rory McIlroy and Adam Scott, Merion's crowd of golf fans was showing a lot of wear and tear. Torrential rains had soaked the course in the morning, leaving a bog of muddy footpaths to trudge through the rest of the day. A steamy sun reigned over the afternoon and the pain of the extreme sunburns that resulted was only being dulled by the beers that temporarily sloshed around in plastic cups before being downed. If it felt like the entire population was covered in a constant layer of grime, sweat and hops, well, that's because it was.
If you've ever attended a golf tournament, you don't have to imagine what the atmosphere felt like as the afternoon wore on. Jokes from the gallery were becoming a lot funnier to those who were blurting them out. Cheer the WAGs who were walking by? Why not? The kids toting the pairing scoreboards? The louder the better. The Andy Frain ushers who were corralling them with ropes away from the players? Standing ovation, baby.
The mood, though, got a bit more serious once Woods finally stalked his way onto the practice green, past the cheers he kept a stone face through and into a scene of fellow pros who worked just as hard to appear unaffected by his presence. He worked on his short game for 10 or 15 minutes and then walked toward the first tee among more low cries of "Tie-grrrrrr." A high schooler who was assigned to carry the scoreboard for the trio nervously jangled his foot while a pair of country club women edged their way toward the front "just to say we saw him once." A course marshal scolded a group that was snapping pictures on their cellphones, promising that "they" would take them without ever saying who "they" were.
While this entire circus scene may follow Woods wherever he goes, Thursday's setup held a slight twinge of novelty for the international superstar. It came in the form of another meeting with his ex-caddie Steve Williams and the second handshake of the week that everyone was watching. For the record, it was Woods who initiated the formality as Stevie knelt near Adam Scott's bag. His expression? Well, it looked a lot like the same 1,000-yard stare he gave Williams back in November 2011 after the pair famously split earlier that year.
Eventually, it was time for golf, a too-litte, too-late proposition for those ticketholders who had already worn themselves out, but a welcome one for fans turning on the television at home after a long day at work. Woods teed it up first, but not until after the course starter ran through his U.S. Open title history, a triumvirate of 2000, '02 and '08 triumphs that underscored the possibility of a fourth being added her this weekend.
But then that first drive went right, the hooligan channeled an old cartoon character and Woods walked down from the tee box and into a weekend of questions that would see a second-hole birdie sandwiched by two bogeys in the first three holes and would again be delayed by rain about an hour later.
At the very least, though, it had finally begun.