Justin Hicks is no stranger to the U.S. Open.
He has played in it four times and even shared the first-round lead after shooting a 68 in 2008 at Torrey Pines. But as he comes off the best finish of his relatively brief PGA Tour career, the Royal Palm Beach resident carries a greater confidence into Thursday’s first round at Merion Golf Club than he has in the past.
“I’m starting to see some better stuff out here,” he said after his practice round Wednesday. “My short game is starting to feel more confident, and I’m starting to see better results.”
At 38, Hicks is enjoying a breakout year on the PGA Tour. He played in 23 events in 2011 but made only seven cuts and lost his card. An 11th-place finish on the Web.com Tour last year got it back and he has made the most of the opportunity, making 13 of 17 cuts and posting five top-25 finishes this year, including his first top 10, a tie for seventh in last week’s FedEx St. Jude Classic in Memphis, Tenn.
“It was nice to go back to a place I’d played before. I’d played it two years ago as a rookie,” Hicks said. “A lot of these guys have played these golf courses 10 or 12 times and it’s a big difference when they can say, ‘I know what this green is like,’ or ‘I know what this tee shot is like.’ ”
Hicks didn’t know much about Merion Golf Club, this week’s Open venue, when he arrived Monday, but he wasn’t alone. Only a handful of golfers entered this week having played a competitive round on the course, which he feel levels the playing field.
“We’re all out here trying to figure this place out,” he said. “You’ve got new tees. So it’s a lot different compared to one where everybody’s been there for 10 or 15 years.”
A native of Wyandotte, Mich., who played college golf at the University of Michigan, Hicks said he feels at home on the bent grass he’ll be playing on this week.
“Northern golf has a feel to it,” he said. “And I tend to find my better results don’t always happen on Bermuda (grass), which is (on courses) where I live. But hopefully we’ve made a turn for the better with our results out here.”
Hicks qualified for the Open earlier this month in Columbus, Ohio, when he survived an 11-man playoff for seven spots by birdieing the first hole. He said the pressure of that situation was never an issue.
“I always love playing major championships, but at the same time I’ve played a lot of golf this year, and in the back of my head I was saying, ‘I’ve gotta take a week off somewhere.’ So it was either going to be (this week) or maybe a week or two after.”
The thrill of sharing the first-round lead in 2008 wore off quickly when Hicks shot an 80 in the second round and wound up tied for 74th. He missed the cut in 2004 and last year and tied for 60th in 2011. He expects better this week.
“My thinking has changed a little,” he said. “I heard Jack Nicklaus once said, ‘You don’t have to play perfect on the PGA Tour. You don’t have to make perfect shots, (but) never make bogeys.’ You have to trust that even if you make some mistakes, you’re good enough that you can survive and make a living out here. That’s what I’m trying to do.”