Merion Moments: Phil Mickelson’s scheduling luck continues as group beats race against darkness

ARDMORE, Pa. — The sequence of sounds that could be heard on the 18th green at 8:27 local time Friday night went in this order: Air horns blew, the gallery did a half gasp-half groan and then marshals quickly shushed the area into silence. Despite a suspension of play due to darkness, the grouping standing on the final hole at Merion Golf Club would be permitted to finish their second round in the U.S. Open. Keegan Bradley quickly completed his pitch from the rough, a shot he had already been addressing when the commotion began.

Just over one minute later, Phil Mickelson rolled in a 30-foot putt that brought cheers from a late-staying crowd determined to wring every minute of value from their expensive tickets. The shot went for Lefty's first birdie of the day and tied him with Billy Horschel for the lead at 1-under for the tournament.

More importantly, the rattle of Mickelson's ball in the bottom of the hole signaled a victory in his grouping's race against time, a battle that doesn't normally exist in golf but can pay off huge dividends in an event that gets ravaged by weather.

"It's a big break for us to finish," said Steve Stricker, who played with Bradley and Mickelson and was only one of four players to post a negative number with a one-under 69 in the second round. "[It's nice] to get that extra rest [on Saturday morning], because it's two long days and you need all the rest you can get."

Mickelson may not end up winning his first U.S. Open this weekend, but it won't be due to a lack of breaks when it comes to scheduling. Both Mickelson and Stricker — who is tied for third with four other players at even par — escaped the first-round rain delays without a major deal of inconvenience. They completed Thursday's round in the afternoon, went home for a full day of rest and then got their Friday golf in just under the wire, escaping a suspension that would have meant an early call on Saturday for a shot or two before waiting three or more hours for their third-round tee time.

Compare that situation to someone like Ian Poulter, Jerry Kelly or Charley Hoffman. All three pros are in contention, but were at various points on the course when the horns sounded. It's going to be a long Saturday for them since they'll resume play just after 7 a.m.

Or compare it to a grouping like Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Adam Scott. That trio didn't take their first shot until 4:44 on Thursday evening, were forced to come back by 7 a.m. for the final eight holes of the first round and ended up playing 26 total holes on Friday.

How'd that feel, Tiger?

"Long day and I'm hungry," he grunted at his post-round interview.

Stricker said he wasn't so sure that he and Mickelson would complete the round but that he felt better about their prospects as the pace of play quickened. Ever the optimist, Mickelson said he thought all 18 holes would go down and his confidence in everything working out probably comes as no surprise considering he flew across the country and back so he could attend his daughter's eighth-grade graduation earlier this week.

"They finished [Thursday] night at 8:19 and that was five and a half hours since we teed off [on Friday]," Mickelson said. "I thought we'd get it in."

The arithmetic worked out, sure, but they still needed a few outside influences to beat the rotation of the Earth. Bradley will likely miss the cut at +12 and his struggles led to a let's-get-this-over-with brooding that negated his notorious slow play. Indeed, Bradley cooperated by being quick to all his shots, including one tough birdie putt on 15 that he sank without a great deal of previous planning.

Another break went the group's way as it ran into Dustin Johnson and his caddie Keith Sbarbaro as it approached the 17th green. Johnson's trio — which had been put on the clock around No. 8, picking up their pace — was leaving the 18th tee box when Mickelson said they'd have Bradley hit and would they mind stepping aside if forced to wait in the fairway for the group ahead of them? Johnson agreed and Bradley went through with the formality, allowing Mickelson and Stricker more time on the tee box when the proper time came.

"It worked out we were fine timewise," Mickelson said. "But it's nice when guys like that help out."

Whether or not any of this will have any lasting impact into Saturday or Sunday's rounds remains to be seen. Mickelson struggled with his putting all day Friday and that was with the aforementioned rest. Throw in some greens that are drying out and a USGA layout that has Zach Johnson steaming and Friday's small victory might not end up meaning anything.

But the thing about small victories like finishing a round before suspension is that they some times add up to something more. And should Mickelson get a few more small victories to add up over the next few days, he may finally win the biggest golf prize that has eluded him.

And that triumph on an 18th green with a lot more sunlight and a lot more fans.

Not to mention a few less air horns.

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