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.