ARDMORE, Pa. -- It was going to be so easy. With greens and fairways softened by repeated storms, Merion Golf Club was going to lose its teeth and lay down for the field of the 113th U.S. Open like a puppy waiting for a belly scratch.
Or so everyone thought.
But, even on a day that had two more weather delays and another half-inch of rain dropped on an already soggy layout, Merion sent out a stern warning to anyone who thought the U.S. Open would turn into an outdoor dart contest.
"This was as easy as this golf course is going to play," Phil Mickelson said. "We had very little wind ... we had soft fairways, soft greens and we had no mud balls. We had the best opportunity to score low. And we are all struggling because it's such a penalizing golf course."
Mickelson was one of the few who didn't. After opening with a bogey on one of Merion's short par 4s, he made four birdies and 13 pars the rest of the way to take the clubhouse lead of the rain-delayed first round with a 3-under 67.
England's Luke Donald, a former world No. 1 who is 0 for 39 in major championships, birdied his final three holes and was at 4 under after 13holes when play was suspended. But Donald still has to play Merion's five brutal finishing holes, where anything can happen.
Masters champion Adam Scott birdied his final hole and is at 3 under after 11. He will be among the 78 players who have to complete the first round today. The backlog means the second round will not be completed until Saturday morning, likely pushing completion of the third round into Sunday.
"I think that anybody in that commentary box has never given this golf course enough credit," England's Ian Poulter said. "They were joking around, laughing at [the possibility of] 62s and 63s and just look at the board. They need to respect the course. It's brutal."
Poulter found out the hard way. After starting his round with three consecutive bogeys, he finished at 71 after a round that included three bogeys and a double bogey.
Then there was the travails of Sergio Garcia of Spain. After a tap-in birdie at the 102-yard 13th, his third hole, he hit his tee shots at Nos. 14 and 15 out of bounds, resulting in a double-bogey-6 and a quadruple-bogey-8.
Garcia's tumultuous first round included four birdies, an eagle, two double bogeys and one quadruple, and he finished at 73.
"The U.S. Open doesn't give you much room," Garcia said.
Especially at Merion, where the claustrophobic are not comfortable.
Mickelson and Nicolas Colsaerts of Belgium (69) are the only players in the clubhouse under par. There are 14 players under par who still have to complete the first round, including defending champion Webb Simpson (2 under after eight holes), world No. 2 Rory McIlroy (1 under after 11) and England's Lee Westwood (1 under after 12) .
Tiger Woods, the world's top-ranked player who is seeking to end a five-year drought in major championship, is 2 over after 11 holes.
Woods hurt his left wrist hitting his approach from the deep rough at No. 1, then appeared to aggravate the injury several more times playing from the rough at Nos. 5 and 11.
"I looked at the leader board and I said to [Brandt] Snedeker, the course is holding up really well," said England's Justin Rose, who had to birdie three of his final holes to shoot 71. "And I guess it has."
Mickelson has won three Masters and a PGA Championship, and has come close to winning several U.S. Open titles. But he has not played well recently in major tournaments, bettering par in just two of his past 14 rounds.
That all changed at Merion when Mickelson put away the driver, hit 11 fairways and never made a bogey after the opening hole.
Mickelson took the lead by himself with an18-foot birdie at the par-3 ninth, which, typically, would have ended his round. But, because the USGA started the "back nine" at Merion on No. 11, Mickelson had one more hole to go -- and he parred the 303-yard 10th.
Donald made five birdies in his opening 13 holes and ended his day with a flurry, making birdies at Nos. 11, 12 and 13. He was among the few who were not fazed by Merion's difficulty.
"This is the best setup I've seen for a U.S. Open," Mickelson said. "What they did to Merion in the setup was they made the hard holes even harder. And I love that because, if you're playing well, you're going to be able to make pars and you're going to be able to separate yourself from the field by making pars. But on the easy holes they didn't trick them up and take away your birdie opportunities."
Gerry Dulac: email@example.com and Twitter @gerrydulac. First Published June 14, 2013 4:00 AM