Three years ago, Justin Hicks stood in the fairway on the sixth hole at Torrey Pines Golf Course on the outskirts of San Diego and heard the following from a pair of spectators outside the ropes: “That’s Justin Hicks. That’s the guy leading the U.S. Open.” Hicks looked down, knocked that around in his brain — I am leading the U.S. Open — and tried to collect his thoughts.
His world ranking at the time: 722. His job status: a conditional member of the minor league Nationwide Tour, meaning he couldn’t gain entry into all the events he wanted to play. His route to the Open: through a local qualifier, in which he finished as an alternate, then into a sectional qualifier when someone else dropped out. There, he reached a playoff and birdied the first hole — a berth. And when he sat in a news conference after that first round, having made seven birdies and shooting 68 to lead the Open, someone asked: “Who are you?”
Easy answer: A perfect first-round Open leader.
“There’s been a history of things that have gone on at this tournament with people that have ended up playing well that are not necessarily household names,” Hicks said.
Introducing men such as Hicks, Kevin Streelman, Brendon de Jonge, Nick Dougherty, Olin Browne, Nolan Henke, Jay Don Blake and Mike Nicolette. Take your pick, and quick, write up a bio on any or all. On Thursday evening, someone will hold the first-round lead at the U.S. Open at Congressional Country Club. It may be Phil Mickelson, winner of four major championships. It may be Luke Donald, the top-ranked player in the world. It may be Graeme McDowell, the defending champion.
But it may be someone who sends hands to heads for good, hard scratches, because one question — “Who are you?” — leads to another: “How’d you do that?”
“When you go to an Open, it’s an ‘Open,’ ” said Curtis Strange, who won the tournament twice. “You probably have 25, 30 people in the field that are either a club professional, they’re an amateur, they’re a mini-tour player, they’re a foreign player who qualified, and people have no idea who that is. But you know what? It doesn’t mean he can’t play.”
Such characters are littered across the 110 previous Opens. The man who tied Sandy Lyle and Bob Gilder for the lead after the first day in 1988: Nicolette. He had won one PGA Tour event five years earlier. He lost his tour card the previous year. Asked that day when he last led a tourney, he said, “I don’t know. It’s ancient history.” But when he left the course, he had a more meaningful thought: I’ll probably make the cut, so I’ll make a nice check, and that means I can pay for my hotel.
“Would’ve turned to the credit cards otherwise,” Nicolette said by phone last month. “I never considered myself an elite player.”
After opening with a 3-under-par 68, Nicolette — like so many before or since — was among the elite in the game. Same with Streelman, who was a PGA Tour rookie carrying a world ranking of 608 when he tied Hicks for the lead in 2008. Same with Browne. When tied for the lead after the first round of the 2005 Open at Pinehurst, the Washington native was 46, six years removed from the most recent of his two tour victories.
“I know one thing,” Streelman said. “It was a blast.”
There is a common denominator in the execution of these surprising rounds.
“I played from a lot of fairways,” Hicks said.
“I just drove it spectacularly the first day,” Streelman said.
“At the U.S. Open, you have to hit the ball in the fairway,” Nicolette said, “and I did.”
That, then, could happen Thursday for some straight hitter at Congressional. Because the first-round lead isn’t likely to be wildly under par, players who are steady — those who keep the ball in the fairway and avert disaster — have a chance.
“You just concentrate on keeping the ball in the fairway, keeping it below the hole, managing your game,” Nicolette said. “If you do that, you might be like 1 under after 12 or 14 holes, and you look up and you’re on the leader board. You’re sitting there thinking, ‘I don’t think I’ve done anything spectacular.’ ”
Then comes the challenge: Can you look at your name on the leader board and manage all that comes with it? Hicks said he got “a little more nervous” when he overheard those fans discussing his status.
“You couldn’t help fight some thoughts in your head,” Hicks said.
“As soon as you get up toward the top of the leader board, even though it’s not true,” Browne said, “every shot seems to have more value. It seems more important.”
A random leader, too, is of no concern to the rest of the field. This week, players such as Mickelson know they need only to avoid calamity on Thursday and Friday to have a shot on the weekend. The Mike Nicolettes of the world? Enjoy Thursday. Sunday’s different.
“I hate to say this, because it sounds terrible, because Mike’s a nice guy,” said Strange, who won the ’88 Open in which Nicolette shared the lead after the first round. “But in all honesty, you didn’t expect him to be there Sunday afternoon.”
Unexpected leaders must also deal with the unfamiliar aspects of leading a major. Hicks finished his round close to noon — and didn’t get to eat lunch until 4:30 p.m. because of an onslaught of media interviews. He couldn’t turn them down.
“You’re seeing all these people that you see on TV all the time,” Hicks said, “and it’s like, ‘You want to talk to me now? Oh, cool.’ ”
That, then, is the environment in which they much sleep — mentally and physically exhausted, but undeniably juiced.
“The next day is typically not very good,” Nicolette said. “You know you’re going to be on TV. You’re going to have bigger crowds. And you start thinking, ‘Wait a minute, I’m not used to this. I’m used to playing with my buddies at the muni with a six-pack.’ ”
And when something goes awry, it typically, as Nicolette said, “snowballs, and you can’t get it back.” Nicolette had a three-shot lead on the 12th on Friday, hooked his tee shot, made triple bogey, and was never heard from again. He now makes clubs for Ping. Streelman followed his 68 with a 77, Hicks his 68 with an 80. Browne shot 80 in the final round.
Each, though, has a memory. Friends sent Hicks photos of the leader boards at Torrey Pines, his name at the top. He still has one at his house, though he recently moved it. It was an exciting time, a day he proved he could play with the best in the world. But 18 holes is 18 holes. The tournament consists of 72. In the end, what does the first-round lead mean?
“For me, it was like, all right, this is a great accomplishment,” Hicks said. “It’s wonderful. But I don’t think there’s anybody out there who’s ever been rewarded for leading the first day. Is that what we’re all playing for?”