The vigor in Tory Merritt’s voice was impossible to ignore.
“Doing great. Doing well. The sun is shining.”
That was the answer on the other end of the line late Friday afternoon when Merritt was asked from 2,000 miles and two time zones away about his current mood.
And really, who could blame him?
Merritt is two shots off the lead at the Northern Trust Open, held at Riviera Country Club in the shadows of Los Angeles. His bogey-free, 5-under 66 on Friday puts him at 8 under for the tournament heading into the weekend tied with Dustin Johnson and Bubba Watson.
It wasn’t long ago that Merritt, 30, spent this time of year with golf clubs as an afterthought. Instead, Merritt played boys’ basketball for Spring Lake Park in the winters.
Oh, sure. Merritt eventually honed his golf skills in college at Winona State and Boise State and spent a stretch living in the golf-friendly confines of Phoenix.
But those golf-gone-dark experiences from Merritt’s youth might have a little something to do with his success since turning professional in 2008.
“You spend all this time – months and months of waiting and waiting to swing a club,” Merritt said. “So when the time comes, you do what you can to make the most of it when the weather allows. You don’t forget that. Minnesotans are so passionate about golf. Guys really put in the effort.”
Merritt has banked a shade over $4 million in his PGA Tour career. He won his first tournament, the Quicken Loans National, in August finishing three shots clear of Rickie Fowler.
He’s off to a mediocre start on paper to the 2015-16 campaign, missing the cut in six of eight events including the last four in a row.
Merritt has found something at Riviera, however.
“I had a couple of misses [Friday] but they were in the right spots,” he said.
Like on 15 when Merritt hit a shot below his feet out of a bunker, caught it right and saw the ball veer even further right when it clipped a tree. It landed on the 17th hole, 80 yards from the cup on 15. But Merritt chipped to tap-in range, saved his par and moved on unscathed.
Such saves will be key for the weekend.
“A lot of stress-free pars and find a way to make some extra birdies,” Merritt said of his gameplan. “The course is going to firm up. Minimize the mistakes. The guy who plays well this weekend will be in the fairways.”
Charlie Danielson will join Merritt this weekend.
The University of Illinois senior from Osceola, Wis., won a spot into the Northern Trust Open by shooting 68 in Monday’s College Showcase, a pre-tournament event in which the lowest score earns a start with the big boys.
Danielson carded a stellar 67 on Thursday and opened with an eagle on the first hole Friday.
As darkness hit Riviera, Danielson finished his second round 1 over for the day. But the 3-under par total earned him two more cracks at the course.
“Good for him; he earned it this wasn’t handed to him,” Merritt said. “It’s a great confidence boost for him. I hope he enjoys the ride and shoots some good scores.”