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By ARNIE STAPLETON
SAN DIEGO – Thick rough or not, something about Torrey Pines Golf Course agrees with Kevin Streelman.
The 29-year-old PGA Tour rookie shot a 3-under-par 68 Thursday, tying him with Justin Hicks, another golfer who has toiled on the mini-tours for years, as the first-round leaders in the 108th U.S. Open.
“I do enjoy this golf course. The lines off the tee kind of suit my eye well,” Streelman said through a constant smile. “Fortunately, drove it well and my iron play was pretty solid today.
“I just really love this golf course.”
Before Thursday, Streelman’s claim to fame came at the Buick Invitational on the same striking city-owned golf course perched on cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
As the third alternate, Streelman figured that he probably wouldn’t get a chance to play. So he was rapping a few putts to kill time when somebody tapped him on the shoulder and told him he was teeing off in a few minutes.
When he looked up, he was startled to see Tiger Woods in front of him, but he was too intimidated to say hi.
Even more jarring was seeing Woods with him on the first tee in the final group that Saturday after Streelman opened with a 67, then made it around the tough South Course on Friday with a 69 that put him in second place – and under a big spotlight on the weekend.
“I was the last alternate to get in Thursday morning, 6 minutes before my tee time, and kind of raced out and went out and shot a 5-under on the other course and came back here and shot a 3-under, and all of a sudden I was paired with Tiger,” Streelman recounted.
“That was definitely an eye-opening experience, and to this day one of the cooler experiences of my life.”
Woods, the world’s No. 1 player, said at the time he had never heard of Streelman, and when told that he was No. 1,354 in the world rankings, Woods replied, “I think he might be going up.”
He rose to No. 608 entering play this week.
While Woods went on to win the Buick, Streelman faded, shooting 75-77 on the weekend to finish tied for 29th. Still, his $33,063 check was his biggest on Tour until he finished tied for 14th at the Shell Houston Open, netting $92,400.
Streelman, who’s just back from his honeymoon and a two-week break from golf, used his surprising success at the Buick to soothe his nerves Thursday.
“I felt like to kind of do that out of the gates took away a lot of the anxiety, I would say. I almost feel a lot less nervous on my tee boxes after doing that with him,” Streelman said. “Great experience for me.”
Playing with a new Scotty Cameron putter that he received just this week, Streelman had a chance to grab the lead all to himself before bogeying his last hole, the 612-yard, par-5 ninth.
“I thought I hit a perfect hybrid down the fairway, and it normally should kick right down there, and it shot through and jumped into that other cut of rough, and I just caught a flier, to be honest,” Streelman said. “I hit a good shot and it just jumped on me a little, and I was pretty much in a lot of trouble over the back of that green.”
Streelman said he planned to tap into his experience playing on the weekend with Woods six months ago to help him try to keep this dream alive on Friday.
“The main thing I took out of it was the necessity of rest,” said Streelman, who planned to grab a quick dinner and hit the sack early.
He also said he’s gotten over the wow factor.
“The first time with Tiger was definitely an incredible experience,” Streelman said. “The first time we walked off the first hole, he said, ‘Hey, Kev, what’s going on?’ And he was chatting like he was a buddy. You realize they’re guys, as well.”
And Streelman’s definitely one of the guys now.