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Rookie makes auspicious debut at Sony Open

2007 Sony OpenHONOLULU – Troy Merritt had strong credentials as a PGA Tour rookie, just not the hype.

Even though he set an NCAA record by winning five straight tournaments at Boise State, and last month went wire-to-wire at Q-school to earn his PGA Tour card, he was overlooked Thursday in the Sony Open while playing alongside 21-year-old Rickie Fowler.

If that wasn’t enough, the standard-bearer had the wrong name on the sign – Merrick – which wasn’t fixed for an hour.

By the end of the round, Merritt was starting to make a name for himself.

One of four rookies who had never teed it up on the PGA Tour, the 24-year-old Merritt played with poise at Waialae for a 5-under 65 that gave him a share of the early lead with Davis Love III, defending champion Zach Johnson and Ryan Palmer.

“My fiancee asked me, ‘What do you want to accomplish on your first round?’ And I said, ‘I’d be ecstatic if I could shoot 3-under par.’ I wasn’t really thinking about that today,” Merritt said. “And things went way better than I thought they could have gone.”

Not so for Fowler.

The two-time Walker Cup star who lost in a playoff on the PGA Tour last fall began with a three-putt double bogey from 8 feet above the hole, picked up another double bogey and wound up with a 75.

Merritt isn’t bothered by the lack of attention, and thinks the world of Fowler. Chalk up the pairing and the results to coincidence, especially one round into a long season.

“He was the No. 1 amateur a few years back. He definitely deserves the attention he gets,” Merritt said. “And I’ve always enjoyed flying under the radar. With the cameras on him, and everybody asking about him, that’s just fine with me. I just go about my business and see what I can do.”

As for the name mix-up?

Merritt was mistaken for John Merrick, who played in the World Cup for the United States last year with Nick Watney.

“That’s the ultimate ‘flying under the radar’ right there,” Merritt said with a laugh.

Merritt, polite as he can be, is used to winning on a smaller scale. He won 12 tournaments in two years at Winona State in Minnesota, a Division II school, then transferred to Boise State and won nine times, including seven as a senior when he led the NCAA in scoring.

He won last year on the Nationwide Tour, although he didn’t fare well enough to finish in the top 25 and earn a PGA Tour card. Instead, he went to Q-school and starred, becoming one of only three players since 1992 to be atop the leaderboard all six rounds.

Merritt took a year to remind himself that there should be little difference between college and the big leagues except for the level of competition. Otherwise, it’s him against the course.

Thursday must have felt like old times.

“I thought I had to change a little bit to compete on the Nationwide Tour, and now on the PGA Tour,” he said. “I found out last summer I can take what I did in college and apply it to what I’m doing now. And the results ended up being pretty much the same.”

His first PGA Tour birdie was a 12-foot putt that banged into the back of the cup, with fortune on his side because he hit it too hard. Later came more pure shots, including a 6-iron he held against a strong wind on the par-3 11th to 6 feet.

Asked how he could shoot 65 in his PGA Tour debut, Merritt said he kept it simple. He played only one practice round before Thursday.

“You learn the course a little bit, you learn where not to hit it,” he said. “You get a good feel for the greens, and then when the tournaments comes, the focus level increases 10 times. It obviously worked out today.”