ARDMORE, Pa. -- They were going to make the USGA pay for what went down at Winged Foot in 1974, and at Shinnecock three decades later, and at every U.S. Open labor camp over the years that left the world's finest golfers crying uncle.
There would be no massacre at Merion, but a massacre of Merion. This was supposed to be golf's answer to a Wiffle ball field, a Fenway Park minus the Green Monster, a ballpark not even 7,000 yards long for the big boys and the high-tech clubs that served as their weapons of mass destruction.
Someone was certain to beat Johnny Miller's enduring 63 at this U.S. Open. Heck, with the right amount of rain to soften up the place, maybe just maybe someone would drop an Al Geiberger on this par-70 and shoot a 59 that would cause at least a dozen USGA blazers to faint on the spot and all but shutter the entire sport to boot.
But then a not-so-funny thing happened Thursday to the dozens upon dozens of bullies who were going to treat Merion like your friendly neighborhood muni, and then swipe those precious wicker baskets for their trophy cases at home.
The golf course punched them back. In the face. With a hard follow-up jab to the nose for good measure.
Luke Donald came in at 4-under after 13 holes, but he was favored to come back to the pack a bit on Merion's oppressive closing stretch.
As it turned out, Ian Poulter, terminator of all things red, white and blue, was a fitting representative of what happened to the vast majority of the field. Poulter sank three consecutive birdie putts to start the early-morning fast break, ran into a 3-hour, 34-minute rain delay, and then ran into a brick wall, ending up looking and sounding like one of those Americans he usually pounds into Ryder Cup submission.
"I don't think anybody in any commentary box has ever given this golf course enough respect," said Poulter, who shot 4-over on his final 15 holes. "They were joking around, laughing about 63s and 2s. Just look at the [scoreboard]. I mean, they need to respect this golf course. It's brutal."
Brutal enough for 76 of the 78 players who finished their opening rounds to post a score of par or worse.
"I would be surprised if someone goes crazy today," said Nicolas Colsaerts, one of the two finishers to beat par at 1-under 69.
In fact, the other par-buster did go crazy. Phil Mickelson flew in overnight from his daughter's eighth-grade graduation in San Diego, caught two hours of sleep on the plane, one before his 7:11 a.m. ET tee time and another during the rain delay before taking the lead with his 67.
Creditable for a father trying to make his girl smile. Crazy for a four-time major winner trying to claim his first Open.
Mickelson told the USGA's Mike Davis, "This is the best setup I've ever seen for a U.S. Open," and then shared some less encouraging words with the rest of the field.
"This was as easy as this golf course is going to play," he warned.
They were joking around, laughing about 63s and 2s. Just look at the [scoreboard]. I mean, they need to respect this golf course. It's brutal.
"-- Ian Poulter, on Merion
Mickelson needed a jolt of caffeine in the middle of his round just to get through it, and he noted that Thursday's Merion came packaged with little wind, no mud balls, and inviting dartboards for fairways and greens.
"It's a course that's withstood the test of time," Mickelson said, "and it's challenging the best players in the world this week."
Just as it should, of course. This is where Bobby Jones closed out his 1930 Grand Slam. This is where Ben Hogan dramatically won the 1950 U.S. Open after recovering from a near-fatal car wreck, and where Lee Trevino beat Jack Nicklaus in their epic 1971 playoff.
Merion was too damn proud, too iconic, to surrender without a fight. So the ghosts woke up the echoes and reminded everyone that this small ballpark is protected by treacherous rough, runaway greens, par-3s that look like par-4s and finishing holes that could break a man in half.
"Yes, we're making birdies on those short holes," Poulter said. "But look at what we have to contend with out there on those long holes. It's not easy."
Not even close.
"I wouldn't want to see it too firm," Charley Hoffman said of the course. "That would make it virtually impossible."
Sergio Garcia smacked balls out of bounds on the 14th and 15th holes, going double bogey, quadruple bogey before scrambling his way back from 7-over to 3-over. His biggest problem of the day was the golf course -- and not the handful of Philly fans who might've mistaken him for Santa Claus.
When their rounds were complete, players were running away from the idea that a 62 was out there to be had. "That was you guys," Jerry Kelly told reporters. "That wasn't us."
It didn't matter who said what in the end. These 111 suffocating acres with a putting green on the 14th tee and a clubhouse patio close enough to the first tee for a 20-handicapper eating a burger to practically reach out and touch Tiger Woods got inside the opposition's head.
"It held its own," Hoffman said.
Oh, it did far more than hold its own.
As if Hogan himself had raised his famous staff, the 1-iron, and commanded Merion to behave as it had in 1950, when the one and only took the Open with a score of 7-over 287, the course proved tough enough to inspire Mickelson to predict that Sunday's winning score would end up at about par.
Tiger hurt his elbow in Merion's rough, and hurt his chances to end his five-year major drought by playing his 10 holes for the day at 2-over. Lee Westwood, at 3-under after 11 holes, hit one of those wicker baskets on the fly and took a double bogey for his troubles.
"By the end of the week," Bubba Watson said, "Merion is going to win."
Merion didn't bother waiting for the end of the week. It won the bloody first round by technical knockout, and offered enough evidence to suggest the punches will only get harder from here.