LOS ANGELES -- They've held this cool little deal here at Northern Trust Open the past couple of years called the Collegiate Showcase. On Monday of tournament week, a college golfer, a PGA Tour pro from the same school and two alums compete at Riviera Country Club. There are a few different competitions, but here's the best one: The college player with the lowest score earns himself a spot in the tournament field, competing against the world's best professionals.
This year's winner was Charlie Danielson, a 22-year-old senior at the University of Illinois, who posted a 3-under 68 to get into a tourney featuring such names as Bubba Watson, Rory McIlroy and even Jordan Spieth.
Sounds like a dream come true, huh?
You don't know the half of it. Danielson isn't some country-club kid who spent his childhood playing golf year-round at one of those fancy academies that tries to groom young junior players into pros.
No, he comes from Osceola, Wisconsin, which -- surprise, surprise -- isn't exactly a hotbed for up-and-coming golfers. It's a 2,500-person town with one stoplight, right near the Minnesota border, where Danielson learned to play the game from his father, Craig, at a 6,200-yard course called Krooked Kreek.
So, you could excuse him if he came into the opening round a little starry-eyed. You could excuse him for such pinch-me moments as these: "I saw Jordan Spieth yesterday at the hotel. I was in an elevator with Adam Scott. I talked to Patrick Rodgers."
And you could excuse him if he became a victim of nerves in the opening round, struggling with his surroundings and the big stage and the largest galleries he has ever had watching him.
Except, he didn't.
None of that happened. Instead, Danielson posted a 4-under 67, carded seven birdies and looked completely calm in this new environment.
"I was a little intimidated at first, but everyone has been so kind to me," he said afterward, tied for fifth after Thursday's play was called because of darkness. "They have always thought enough to come up and say congratulations and a couple guys saying that, you know, 'You earned it, so act like it.' "
That's exactly what he did. Danielson will start the second round only 4 shots behind leader Camilo Villegas. He trails Watson by only 1 stroke. He's tied with Rory. And that Jordan guy? Oh, he's just beating him by a dozen shots.
The small-picture takeaway is that Danielson isn't some hack who simply enjoyed a career day. He's a three-time All-American selection whom Illinois coach Mike Small called a "golf nerd" in the most complimentary way possible.
"He's relentless; he's the hardest worker I've had at Illinois," Small said. "He loves the game and loves to be around it."
The big-picture takeaway is that Danielson is symbolic of many top young players these days. He played for the Illinois team that faced Spieth in his last collegiate match. He has seen alums like Scott Langley and Luke Guthrie make a quick rise to PGA Tour membership. He has watched as teammates have competed in the U.S. Open -- and made the cut.
None of which should have left us expecting a college kid from small-town Osceola to find himself on the leaderboard at the year's most star-studded tournament to date, but it shouldn't exactly leave us shocked, either.
As for his mindset, he's playing with nothing to lose, because, well, he doesn't have anything to lose.
"I'm just going to try to take it all in," he said. "I came out with no expectations, and just taking it one shot at a time and trying to have as much fun as possible."
There probably aren't too many similarities between short Krooked Kreek in frigid Wisconsin and Riviera, the 7,322-yard puzzle hailed by many PGA Tour players as one of the best tracks on the schedule.
Even so, Danielson found a few that he used to try and explain his opening round success.
"You get pretty good at your wedges," he said. "And if you're driving for greens, you know you narrow your focus in there, which will definitely help out here."
It's that narrow focus that has Danielson on the leaderboard through one round. He might be a little intimidated; he might be a little starstruck. None of that showed on his scorecard, though.
Instead, the kid from the one stoplight town could be on the verge of stardom himself here in the shadows of Hollywood, writing the kind of script that they love around here.