John Merrick breathed in the charm and majesty of Augusta National for the first time in 2004.
He was a senior at UCLA and was invited to a practice round of the Masters, for him an ideal hello to golf's cathedral. Sunshine bathed the game's most glamorous address and Merrick, reclining near the 18th green, drank in the scene until an Augusta National official approached him.
"Son," the man began, "you can't lay down here on the grounds of Augusta."
That was his greeting at Augusta — a tsk-tsk from the protocol police.
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"They do things their own way," Merrick summarized.
Five years later, Merrick will not be scolded again, unless he pulls up an azalea bush. He's a player this time, the first Modesto resident to tee up a ball at the Masters, and all signs point to a simple fact — he belongs there.
"The course fits my eye very well," he said. "I can't wait."
Merrick, 27, is known in the golf world as an up-and-coming talent. But in Modesto, he's the husband of Johansen High graduate Jody Schmidt. They've purchased a home in Modesto following their marriage last fall and will spend a small portion of the year here. They also will live in Long Beach, Merrick's hometown, when they're not chasing the small white ball on the PGA Tour.
"People ask me if I get nervous watching him," Jody said. "I don't because you have to trust him at what he does. It is hard to watch when things aren't going well. You feel the frustration."
They met at UCLA — Merrick the golfer and Schmidt the water polo player whose Bruins claimed two NCAA championships. The couple already was dating in 2003 when Merrick nearly won the Scratch Players Championship, a summertime event for elite collegians, at Stevinson Ranch.
Merrick showcased his talent back then by ripping driver-driver into a two-club wind to nearly reach the 18th green. It wasn't enough to win, however, and Jody owns bragging rights while he still pursues his first Tour victory.
"She has a ring. I don't," he admits.
What he's done, however, will pay the bills. Merrick has earned more than $2.7 million since he broke in on the Tour in '07. Since then, he's logged seven top-10 finishes and, earlier this year, finished second three strokes behind Pat Perez at the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic.
His game sharpened as the weather worsened during the final round in the desert. Suddenly, an eight-shot deficit was reduced to nothing and he was tied with Perez for the lead with three holes to go.
"The difference between winning the Bob Hope was a couple of inches and a couple of putts," Merrick said. "You have to put yourself in that position over and over again and next time maybe I'll put it over the top. I'm knocking on the door."
Merrick is ranked 10th on the Tour in driving distance (300.8-yard average) and is a solid 54th in the all-around category. More telling is his improved stroke average — 71.05 in 2007, 70.97 in '08, and after 10 tournaments this year, 70.27.
"I need to get better in all facets. You do that through playing and working hard each week," he said. "My swing coach (Jamie Mulligan of Long Beach) has helped me since I was a junior. We're on that path. There is nothing new."
Other than the Bob Hope this year, Merrick's second-most important result to date was his tie for sixth at last year's U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. While Tiger Woods and Rocco Mediate locked in their dramatic duel, Merrick lurked four strokes off the pace. A bogey at 15 ended his chances, but he thankfully didn't realize a stepping stone remained within reach — that a finish in the top eight would qualify him for the 2009 Masters.
"I knew there was a way to get in (to the Masters) through the Open. Luckily, I didn't know too much," he said. "I did feel comfortable in that situation. My swing clicked that week and I knew the course."
Merrick's reward is this week, his second major (he missed the cut at the '05 U.S. Open). He's one of 19 Masters rookies in the field of 96, and expectations are modest. Only one player has won the Masters in his first try — Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979.
Merrick walked onto the grounds for a practice round three weeks ago and, like many golf fans enjoying Augusta for the first time, all the shots already seemed familiar.
"You feel like you've already played it before you tee off," he said. "You remember all the holes when you're watching on TV. It's an amazing piece of property. There is so much elevation change, especially on the greens. If you can putt, it's pretty straight forward."
Playing the course that day with his father was a thrill. His anxiety level will jump, however, on Thursday morning when he walks to the first tee with 1987 Masters champion Larry Mize and Florida State sophomore and U.S. Amateur runner-up Drew Kittleson.
"John's best quality as a golfer is his love for the game," Jody said. "Not everybody absolutely loves what they do every day. He's lucky."
And he certainly won't be laying down on the job this week.
Bee sports writer Ron Agostini can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2302.