HONOLULU – The Sony Open is the first full-field event on the PGA Tour, so introductions are in order. It’s not unusual for players to walk down the range or onto the putting green, see a player, then look over to the stitching on his bag to find out who he is.
More unusual is to see an unfamiliar name atop the leaderboard.
That’s where Troy Merritt comes in.
The 24-year-old from Boise State, who had a decorated college career and went wire-to-wire at Q-school to earn his card, had never played in a PGA Tour event until Thursday, when he steadied his nerves, stuck a tee in the ground, heard his name announced and then navigated his way around wind-swept Waialae in 5-under 65 for a six-way share of the lead.
“Things went way better than I thought,” Merritt said.
He was tied with Davis Love III, Robert Allenby, defending champion Zach Johnson, Ryan Palmer and John Merrick.
It was only fitting that Merrick was the last guy to join the lead, because he featured prominently at the start of the round – even though he wasn’t playing. Merritt was walking down the third fairway when Rickie Fowler noticed that the wrong name was on the hand-held scoreboard in their group. It said “Merrick,” a phonetic mix-up by tournament officials.
“We have lockers right next to each other,” Merrick said. “Probably will all year.”
Among the 10 players one shot out of the lead was Steve Stricker, and he was not the least bit ashamed to admit that while “Troy Merritt” was vaguely familiar, he didn’t know him.
Even so, it brought back memories to when Stricker first played on the PGA Tour.
“It was tough to draw the club back,” he said.
Then he paused.
“Is that what he shot? 5 under?” Stricker asked. “That’s pretty strong.”
Strength mainly belonged to the wind, and that might have been the biggest surprise of the day. The shores of Waikiki had been relatively calm throughout the week, and the early starters were jolted to attention at dawn when the palm trees were swaying.
“I just figured we wouldn’t get much wind,” Pat Perez said after his 66. “And it was howling.”
No matter how hard the wind blows, or even which direction, Waialae seems to yield good scores, perhaps because with 144 players in the field, someone is bound to go low.
Thursday brought quite the mixed bag.
Davis Love III has been coming to Waialae for years, even though it’s a course on which he has never won. He turns 46 in April, and if anyone saw him trotting out to the 11th green late Saturday evening after checking into his hotel, it might be a valid assumption that Love is as enthusiastic now as he was his rookie year.
Actually, it was the fact Love had not felt grass under his feet for a month, and had not competed in two months. It was cold along the Georgia coastline, so he hit balls from his garage into a mat. Then came the family holiday to the snow of Idaho. Just his luck, mats were still being used on the practice range at Waialae.
“I was dialed in for hitting off the mats,” Love said.
He dialed his game in quickly, too, making a birdie on the opening hole of his 2010 season and not making a bogey. He also finished with a birdie, and was pleased.
“I was optimistic,” Love said. “But I was anxious about competing. Once I got it going, once I got under par … I’ve been out here a long time. You don’t forget.”
Not so optimistic was Allenby, even though no other player arrived on Oahu with better form. Allenby won the last two times he played, in South Africa and Australia. Just his luck, he went for a walk Monday morning with his wife, Sandy, stepped off a curb the wrong way and twisted his ankle so severely that he thought about withdrawing.
“I’ve come too far,” Allenby said, and considering Hawaii is about halfway between Florida and Australia, no reference is needed. He had been in Florida, for the record, and found the weather far better in Honolulu, anyway.
Like so many other golfers who are injured, Allenby kept the risks and his expectations low. There was that 4-iron he hit cleanly on the tough par-3 fourth hole for birdie, yet also a 6-iron to the green on the par-5 ninth that he couldn’t fade because he was afraid to put too much weight on his right ankle. He scrambled for birdie and a share of the lead.
“I think if I was at Kapalua, I wouldn’t be able to play,” Allenby said. “There is a lot of slide slopes there. But here, it’s dead flat. I couldn’t have asked for an easier course to play – walking-wise, not hitting-wise.”
He managed both just fine, along with so many others. One round into the Sony Open, 16 players were separated by one shot.
Not everyone had an easy time with it. Fowler, the 21-year-old rookie who lost in a playoff last fall in Arizona, made double bogey on his opening hole and shot 75. John Daly had a 73, bemoaning that he couldn’t make a thing.
Merritt had company, too. Among those at 68 were a pair of other rookies in Martin Flores and Brian Stuard, who also was playing a PGA Tour event for the first time. For now, the PGA Tour must feel like paradise.