- The Washington Times - Friday, June 13, 2008

SAN DIEGO | The steep ravines of scrub that surround the layout at Torrey Pines are home to an abundance of wildlife, most notably squirrels and rattlesnakes.

Both species were on display at Thursday’s first round of the U.S. Open, a pair of squirrelly strangers sneaking to the top of a leader board otherwise occupied by an abundance of more experienced snakes.

In the prey category, the opening-round lead belongs to Kevin Streelman and Justin Hicks, relatively and completely unknown, respectively. The pair combined to make 13 birdies, each posting a 68 on the 7,643-yard, par-71 layout that actually played considerably shorter courtesy of some front-position tee boxes.

Currently ranked No. 722 in the world, Hicks qualifies as a classic mini-tour journeyman. With exactly two top-10 finishes in three struggling seasons on the Nationwide Tour, the 33-year-old might be out of his element among the game’s greats on a major leader board. And despite his splendid opening salvo, he’s probably more likely to miss the cut Friday than to scare anyone by contending late Sunday afternoon.

Streelman, on the other hand, has exhibited considerably more promise as a rookie on the PGA Tour this season. A Q-School graduate, the 29-year-old Duke graduate has made the cut in nine of 17 starts on tour. Although his name certainly isn’t familiar to most golf fans, Streelman was in eerily similar position the last time the world’s best players convened at Torrey Pines.

At the Buick Invitational in January, Streelman posted opening rounds of 67 and 69 to earn a Saturday afternoon date with Tiger Woods (72) in the day’s final pairing. Streelman posted a 75 opposite Woods (who carded 66 that day) and slumped to a Sunday 77 that yielded a tie for 29th. But that experience helped Streelman overcome the standard rookie awe. And Torrey Pines obviously fits his eye.

“I just really love the golf course,” said Streelman, whose best performance this season was a tie for 14th at the Houston Open. “I really played great when I played with Tiger, I felt. I hit it inside him a lot on the front nine and didn’t make any putts. … Those are my dreams to play with those guys. I want to compete against the best of the best and test myself against them.”

He’s going to get his chance in coming days, though perhaps not against Woods or co-favorite Phil Mickelson (71), neither of whom took particular advantage of one of the better scoring days in recent Open history. Clearly still in discomfort in his first start since knee surgery, Woods winced visibly after his drive at the 18th and limped off the property without his typical postround practice session.

Playing alongside Woods in the day’s marquee grouping, Mickelson surprised most observers by leaving his driver out of his bag, a plan that backfired during a sloppy front nine before Lefty rallied back to level par on the strength of four back-nine birdies.

Though neither of the world’s top two players lost touch with the leaders in the opener, both failed to capitalize on a perfect scoring day in which 11 players bettered par - a number that dwarfs the first-round field performances of the last two Opens. Only two players bettered par in the opener at Oakmont last year and only one at Winged Foot in 2006.

Among the snakes just beneath Hicks and Streelman, the two names that leap off the board are former Open winners Geoff Ogilvy (69) and Ernie Els (70). Most impressively, both Ogilvy (2006 U.S. Open winner) and Els (1994 and 1997 winner) posted their scores in the afternoon, when the breeze peaked and the poa greens played havoc on putts of more than four feet. Unlike Woods and Mickelson, who face the afternoon draw Friday, Ogilvy and Els should enjoy far better second-round scoring conditions when they tee off together in the dead calm of the morning with softer, smoother greens.

“I hope that makes a difference,” Ogilvy said. “When you get a full field around on poa greens in an Open, you really have some issues in the afternoon. It’s better on the weekend after the cut. But, yeah, we’ve certainly played on far smoother greens.”

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