Hicks, Streelman lead US Open as favorites struggle

Published 1:41 pm Monday, June 16, 2008

The players in the glamour group were ranked 1, 2 and 3.

The guys at the top of the U.S. Open leaderboard were ranked 608 and 722.

The biggest winner of all after Thursday’s opening round might have been Torrey Pines, a course that muddled the field and blurred the distinction between great, good and mediocre — the way U.S. Open venues so often do.

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Justin Hicks and Kevin Streelman, a pair of journeymen ranked in the deep triple figures, shot 3-under 68 to take the lead after a first round that that produced only 11 scores in the red out of 154 rounds completed.

The leaders were one shot ahead of Rocco Mediate, Stuart Appleby and Eric Axley, who came into the tournament ranked 503rd.

None of the below-par scores belonged to Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson or Adam Scott, who are paired together for the first two rounds and did nothing to lose the tournament on the first day, but not much to live up to the hype, either.

“We’re all going to make mistakes out here,” Woods said.

The world’s best golfer played his first competitive round since knee surgery two months ago and opened the day with a nasty hook into the rough, an overcooked chip over the green and a double-bogey, his first since last September.

“I figured you’re going to make bogeys out here,” Woods said. “I just happened to make two on the very first hole.”

He came back with three birdies to get under par but scuffled on No. 14 for another double and three-putted on 18 to turn a possible birdie into a par. In the end, he was happy to be at 1-over 72, especially considering he needed two par-saving putts of 12 feet or more on the back.

Scott shot 73, while Mickelson finished at 71 and was also breathing a sigh of relief.

He was four behind Woods through 12 holes, but tied with him two holes later after a two-putt birdie on the 13th and a beautiful approach to three feet on the 14th.

“When I don’t play the week before a major, I’m a little rusty on the front nine,” Mickelson said. “I’m glad I was able to keep it in check and only shoot a few over and recover on the back.”

Neither Hicks nor Streelman were talking about recoveries.

They played the kind of game you’d expect from someone with more impressive credentials.

Streelman was ranked No. 1354 early in the year and saw that number improve after making the Buick Invitational in January, right here at Torrey Pines, as an alternate.

He found out he was in the tournament six minutes before his tee time. Two days later, he was playing in the final twosome, alongside Woods. Streelman finished tied for 29th and saw his ranking climb 700 notches — a good experience to build on for the U.S. Open.

“I do enjoy this golf course,” he said.

He played in front of a nearly empty course, finishing late in the afternoon, well after many in the Woods-Mickelson-Scott gallery had gone home for the evening.

“We were all in our own little area,” Mickelson said of the threesome. “When you’re tackling a U.S. Open golf course, it’s so tough that you’re trying to just be in your own world and play it strategically the best you can, hit the best shots.”

Like Streelman, Justin Hicks also played in the Buick Invitational, but strangely enough, not the same Justin Hicks.

The one who played here in January is a club pro in San Diego, who made the tournament on a sponsor’s exemption. He came back for the U.S. Open just to watch. He had a beer and a sandwich and watched his namesake play a few holes. Next thing he knew, there was his name atop the leaderboard.

Who’d have figured?

“Hopefully people aren’t too surprised, at least my good friends,” said Hicks, the one who shot the 68. “I thought it was a pretty good round.”

There weren’t many of those to be had on a sunny, breezy day just off the Pacific. Still, as a testament to how hard the U.S. Open usually is, the 11 below-par scores was a vast improvement over last year’s first-round number — two — at Oakmont.

“This is fair and it’s not easy,” said Lee Westwood, one of five, along with Ernie Els, at 1-under 70. “If you hit it slightly off line, the golf course gives you a chance to get it up and around the greens.”

Steve Stricker positioned himself to go low, at 4-under early, but blew up with a 41 for his second nine.

Then there was Patrick Sheehan.

He also was 4 under, in the lead for a short time, but got a brutal lesson in the way Torrey Pines can give, then take away. Standing ankle-high in the kikuya rough near the 15th green, Sheehan tried to get a wedge on the ball but only popped it up and advanced it about a foot. His next shot came up short of the green, too, and he made triple-bogey.

He finished at even-par 71 — 3 under for 17 other holes, and 3 over because of that nasty rough.

“I mean, it’s disgusting down there,” Sheehan said.