After 68 at Open, Hicks wants to extend his 15 minutes of fame

SAN DIEGO -- The next regular PGA Tour event Justin Hicks plays in will be his first. So it only makes sense that he is tied for the lead at the U.S. Open, right?

You would be hard-pressed to describe Hicks as a journeyman, because in 11 years as a professional golfer, he hasn't yet risen to the level of player who has knocked around long enough to be tagged with that distinction.

But he somehow qualified for the U.S. Open -- surviving his local qualifier, where he emerged as an alternate after losing in a playoff, then surviving a playoff at a 36-hole sectional in Columbus, Ohio, last week.

And now the 722nd-ranked player in the world is on on top of the leaderboard at his national championship.

"Not shocked, but a little bit surprised at the thought of it, at the top of the leaderboard," said Hicks, 33, who lives in Royal Palm Beach, Fla., and played college golf at the University of Michigan.

While the big threesome of Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Adam Scott played the front nine before a huge crowd of spectators, Hicks began about an hour earlier on the back nine with other qualifiers Derek Fathauer and Scott Piercy, playing in relative peace and tranquility.

But his round at Torrey Pines was anything but calm. Hicks did not make a par on the back nine. He carded six birdies and three bogeys, including making red numbers at the 16th, 17th and 18th holes.

One of his bogeys came from an unfortunate bounce. Hicks' approach to the par-4 14th caromed off a sprinkler head and into a hazard, but he felt fortunate to escape with losing just one stroke to par. He added another birdie and bogey to go along with seven pars on the front nine to finish the first round at 3-under-par 68.

"Just because you've played well one day in the Open … it doesn't really get you anywhere in golf."

And yet, Hicks has been just about everywhere but the big tour in his golf career.

He moved to Florida 11 years ago to pursue his dream and made the rounds on various mini tours. South Florida Golf Tour. Golden Bear Tour. Gateway Tour. Maverick Tour.

"The [Maverick Tour] owner ran away with some money and never was heard from again," Hicks said. "He bounced me a check for 25 grand, too."

That's something Woods never had to worry about in his pro career.

Hicks has made it to the finals of the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament just once and he is not even fully exempt on the Nationwide Tour for 2008, where he has played just six times this year. The results? Three missed cuts and a top finish of 28th at the Livermore Valley Open.

"I think I'm another one of the guys out there playing the Nationwide Tour and trying to earn his PGA Tour card," said Hicks, who was 80th on the money list last year, giving him just conditional status. "There's a lot of great young players in America, and we're all out there trying to earn our way up to playing on this big level in front of the cameras and media and everything else. A lot of times we get lost in the shuffle down there because it's a difficult world.

"I finished 80th on the money list out there and I've got just [six] starts. You finish 80th on the PGA Tour and the next year is taken care of. You don't have to think about anything, you're in everything you want to be in. So it's a very difficult world. It makes you play hard and always feel like whatever you're doing, in some ways it's not necessarily good enough."

Hicks is undoubtedly obscure, which makes his story all the more confusing because there is another Justin Hicks who is a professional golfer. The Justin Hicks who isn't leading the U.S. Open is actually a club pro in Southern California who happened to get in the Buick Invitational at Torrey Pines earlier this year.

"That caused a lot of interesting things for us," said Hicks -- the one who is on the U.S. Open leaderboard. "The tour got us mixed up. Companies got us mixed up. Checks were going to my place; checks were going to his place. All kinds of fun stuff going on."

Including when the club pro Justin Hicks came to the Open this week to visit with the Open-playing Justin Hicks. "Yeah, it's kind of weird; the other Justin Hicks is here walking around with my wife," said the Open-playing Justin Hicks.

Go figure.

Hicks played in one previous U.S. Open, the 2004 edition at Shinnecock, where he missed the cut. The experienced helped him, he said, and here he is enjoying his time in the spotlight, not knowing quite how long it will last.

"I'm not really concerned with the whole 15 minutes of fame," he said. "I'm concerned with trying to make it longer than that."

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.