Illinois senior Charlie Danielson already had a dream week even before the Northern Trust Open started Thursday.
He won the collegiate qualifier Monday to earn a spot in his first PGA Tour event. He played a practice round with former Illini golfers Steve Stricker and Scott Langley. He saw Jordan Spieth at his hotel. He rode an elevator with Adam Scott.
And then he played like he belonged at Riviera, making two late birdies for a 4-under 67 that left him one shot off the early lead.
"I just went out and tried to enjoy the day," Danielson said. "I had no idea if I would shoot 80 or 66, so I just went out with no expectations, and it worked out. ... It hasn't really sunk in yet, I don't think. It was a great day."
It was hard for him to ignore his name on the leaderboard, right below Masters champion Bubba Watson, right next to four-time major champion Rory McIlroy.
"These are the best players in the world, and to compete with them on such a great golf course, a championship-style golf course, is pretty thrilling," he said.
Danielson, who grew up in a tiny Wisconsin town (Osceola) on the Minnesota border, was told my Illinois coach Mike Small that one player from the team would go to the Northern Trust Collegiate Showcase to play with an alumni on the PGA Tour and two boosters. He was the highest-ranked player at the end of the fall, and the rest is a blur.
He shot a 68 on Monday to earn a spot in the field. He spent all day at Riviera on Tuesday — that's not usual for star-struck amateurs in a PGA Tour event for the first time — and then wisely took it easy on Wednesday.
And then he started birdie-birdie, holing an 18-foot putt on No. 10 and making a 12-footer birdie on the par-5 11th.
Easy game. Or not.
"I made two birdies and I still wasn't settled in. I was nervous," he said. "My mind was going everywhere. But that was normal, and I knew that was normal. I made two sloppy bogeys after that, and kind of just settled down."
It helped to make a 12-foot putt on the 15th hole to save par from a bunker, and he followed that with three birdies on the next five holes.
Danielson grew up on a 6,200-yard course in his tiny town, taught the game by his father. He wanted to go to a Big Ten school, and considering the success Small has brought to the Illini, it was a perfect fit.
His goal for the year was to earn his spot in a PGA Tour event, so that's been checked off the list. Thursday was a bonus. The trick Friday is to approach it the same.
"I'm going to go in tomorrow and have fun, and whether I have a bad round or a good round or mediocre round, nothing is going to change," Danielson said. "I'm just here for the experience and I'm here to play well. Obviously I'm seeing as good of shots as I can in my mind and just trying to execute them."