In recent years Eric Epperson and Tom Kalinowski have traveled together and even roomed together during their golf travels around the country and in Asia. So they were pleased to discover they were paired together for Friday's first round of the Utah Open Players Championship.

So what did the two traveling buddies do? They went out and both fired 6-under-par 66s, which put them atop the leaderboard - together - of the $150,000, 54-hole tournament.One shot back at 67 is former NCAA champion Todd Demsey, while local pros Steve Schneiter, Joseph Summerhays, Kury Reynolds and Nick Klassen lead a group of six players at 68. Local pros Kim Thompson and Greg Stimpson are among the 11 pros who shot 69s.

In all, 20 golfers broke 70 on a picture-perfect day at Willow Creek Country Club, while 69 golfers shot par or better. That means it will likely take an even-par 144 or better to make the cut Saturday since only 55 players plus tied to make the cut for Sunday's final round.

"I can't tell you how many games of gin rummy we've played together," said Kalinowski, a 29-year-old from Scottsdale, Ariz. "(Eric) always pushes everyone he plays with, so I was glad to see I was paired with him."

Sitting next to him in the press tent, Epperson agreed they "definitely" play better when they play together. Note to rest of the field - watch out. Kalinowski and Epperson are paired together again today, teeing off at 12:27 p.m. off No. 1 tee.

Kalinowski played in last year's Utah Open and finished in a tie for 27th at 1-under-par. He is a veteran of both the Nike and Asian Tours. He played golf at Fort Lewis College and transferred to the University of Colorado.

Starting on the back nine, he made five birdies, but could only play the front nine in one- under par. He finished in grand style, however, sinking a 30-foot putt on his final hole.

"I was five under on the front nine and could easily have been seven. Eric was four under and could easily have been six. We had perfect scoring conditions early," said Kalinowski.

The 33-year-old Epperson is making his first appearance in the Utah Open, although he did play in two Nike Tour events in Provo. He said Willow Creek "has been pretty nice to me" considering that he shot a 66 in Wednesday's pro-am and a 66 Friday in his only two rounds at the course.

Epperson, who like 1987 Utah Open champ Perry Arthur is from Plano, Texas, made four birdies on his first nine and added two more on the front nine in a bogey-less round. Epperson is a late bloomer, having turned pro four years earlier after never playing college golf. He won $70,000 in a tournament in Canada last year.

Demsey, who like Kalinowski hails from Scottsdale, led the 1995 Utah Open after two rounds, but struggled home with a 74 to finish three strokes behind winner J.B. Sneve.

"I had just turned pro and it was the first time I had a chance to win anything," he said. "Hopefully this time it will be different."

Demsey played on the PGA Tour last year, but played "awful" and finished 208th on the money list and lost his PGA card. This year he has played well, winning both the California and Arizona state opens in June, which has given him renewed confidence.

The four Utah golfers at 68 will each be trying to become the first local pro to win the tournament since Eric Hogg won in 1991. Schneiter, who finished fourth last year, has mostly been playing out of state events, including some Nike Tour events as has Summerhays, the son of Senior PGA pro Bruce Summerhays. Klassen is a California native, who moved to St. George where he works at Entrada at Snow Canyon Golf Course. Reynolds is a Salt Lake native who has worked as an assistant at Wingpointe Golf Course.

OPEN NOTES: The shot of the day belonged to Boulder, Colo., pro Mike Troyer, who made a double-eagle 2 on the par-5 No. 12 hole. He hit a 4-iron from 227 for the second double-eagle of his life . . . Play was suspended for a half hour Friday morning when a thunderstorm rolled through Willow Creek . . . For the past two years, Johnny Miller's third son, Andy, has finished as the low amateur. But he can't play this year because he qualified for next week's U.S. Amateur. But his brothers may take his place. Scott, who recently returned from an LDS mission, is tied with Chris Moody as the low amateur at 70, while Todd, who will be a freshman at BYU next year, shot a 71 . . . Hogg had to withdraw because of a water skiing injury . . . Provo's Troy Watkins, shot even par, but was disqualified for signing an incorrect scorecard . . . Defending champion Steve Runge shot an even-par 72.

*****

Utah Open leaderboard

Eric Epperson 66

Tom Kalinowski 66

Todd Demsey 67

Nick Klassen 68

Kury Reynolds 68

Joseph Summerhays 68

Steve Schneiter 68

Joe Acosta 68

Rick Dalpos 68