SAN DIEGO — Kevin Streelman was a complete unknown the last time he visited Torrey Pines, in February. He was also No. 1,114 in the world golf rankings when he earned a third-round pairing with Tiger Woods in the Buick Invitational after a 67-69 start.
A few months later, Streelman is about to become much better known. He bogeyed his final hole late Thursday to drop back into a tie for the lead at the U.S. Open, only your country’s biggest golf championship. And now he’s apparently almost twice as good as he was back in February. He has moved up to 608th in the rankings.
(Streelman got off to a rough start on Friday, making a triple-bogey 6 on the par-3 third. Follow his round on our leaderboard.)
There must be something about Streelman and the South Course at Torrey Pines. In his first U.S. Open round, he shot an easy 68. “I do enjoy the golf course,” he said afterward. “I drove it well and my iron play was solid.”
Streelman’s story is as Cinderella as you can get. He was an alternate at the Buick Invitational and got in at the last minute, almost literally. He had all of six minutes warning before he went out and shot his two blistering rounds, then teed it up in the spotlight with Woods, who went on to win the event. Streelman, a native of Winfield, Ill., who played college golf at Duke, fell back to 29th with a disappointing 75-77 finish.
Despite the outcome, “that was one of the coolest experiences of my life,” said Streelman, 29, who now lives in Scottsdale, Ariz. “To do that out of the gate took away a lot of my anxieties.”
He also learned something on that weekend. “Yeah, the importance of rest,” he said. “After a day like that, it’s wearing on you playing with Tiger-the media, the scrutiny, the crowds. It drains you.”
Streelman had other pumpkin days. He was actually abandoned a few years ago, right here in San Diego, by a group of men who were sponsoring him and suddenly cut off their support without a word. “I was left with nothing,” Streelman said.
He rebounded, had three victories last year on the Gateway Tour and another on the Hooters tour, then made it through all three stages of the PGA Tour’s qualifying school last year-please note that he birdied four of the last five holes to survive the first stage — and now, here he is, leading the Open.
Streelman shared the top spot with Justin Hicks but had it to himself until the closing holes. Finishing on the front nine, Streelman hit a 7-iron into the par-3 eighth hole and found himself over the green. He escaped with a par after holing a clutch putt. “I’m not sure where it landed,” he said of his tee shot, grinning. “There aren’t any ball marks out there.”
The greens had firmed up by the time Streelman finished late in the day. At the par-5 ninth hole, his hybrid layup shot jumped into the rough and he caught a flyer on his next shot, going over the green again. A thick lie caused him to chip long and make bogey to fall back to three under par for the day.
Seasoned Tour veterans will tell you that leading the Open after one round or even any round but the final one means nothing. Streelman, who has won just over $200,000 as a Tour rookie this year, didn’t try to pass that one off as his truth.
His current position “means a lot,” he admitted, considering his long and winding road. “It’s been hard work. This shows that hard work can pay off.”