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Lead goes to Merten in the wind

The wind came out of the west Wednesday like a demon that couldn't be calmed but, at best, could be coerced into being an ally.

Lauri Merten, 1993 U.S. Open champion, harnessed the 30-mph gusts and the tricky Grand Cypress course to shoot the only subpar round of the day. Her 1-under 71 put her atop the leaderboard after the first round of the inaugural Chrysler-Plymouth Tournament of Champions.

Five from the field of 40 past LPGA champions fought to par and tied for second: Betsy King, Patti Sheehan, Donna Andrews, Dottie Mochrie and Kris Tschetter.

"I was trying to be really patient out there," Merten said. "It was just totally windy; the golf course was playing fair, but very difficult. I'm just ecstatic about being 1 under."

Merten was thrilled that she compensated for two bogeys on the front nine with three birdies on the back, including the 18th hole _ especially considering she missed seven greens during the rain-spattered day.

"At the beginning, I felt uncomfortable with my putting," Merten said. "The front side, I played like I played two years ago. I'd hit the ball well, but I wasn't believing in myself. But I think I've really started believing in myself the last two years."

In the last nine holes, the 33-year-old showed the confidence she earned winning the Open at Crooked Stick. The only difference here was that the Jack Nicklaus-designed course is tougher. She said it features "10 or 12 unbelievably hard holes," as opposed to "five or six" from the championship course.

Before the day's rain _ 1.74 inches since Tuesday at midnight _ Grand Cypress was even tougher because of its quick, undulating greens, Merten thought.

"To me, yesterday, the way it was set up, it was a little bit too tough for us," she said. "We're pretty good ball players, but I don't think Jack Nicklaus could have hit a few of those shots on the green and spun it with what we had to hit in.

"I think the wind helped as far as landing the ball softly on the green," Merten said. She birdied par-4 holes at 10, 14 and 18, putting 9, 1 and 5 feet.

King fared better on the front nine: two birdies to start and two bogeys on the back. She had this strategy against the wind and the course: "I was just trying not to worry about the pins so much, but just try to get it onto the green, give yourself two-putt pars.

"If someone had told me in the beginning I'd shoot 72, I would be very satisfied."

How bad was the weather? King put on her rainsuit three times and felt she played in a "3-club wind. I had a 107 yards to one hole and hit an 8-iron, which is actually a 135 (-yard) club for me, and I came up short."

Today's forecast doesn't look much better in terms of wind. There will be the 20-30-mph breeze, just no rain.

"I have a feeling as girls get adjusted to the way the course played, I think you'll see more under-par scores," Andrews said. "We probably tended to be more conservative today because it was so different."

For Merten, the 11-year pro from Delaware, different is a decided advantage. She thrives on pressure, air or otherwise.

Last season was her most successful on the tour. After winning the Open, she placed second in the Mazda LPGA Championship and tied for third in the McDonald's Championship. In the two events of 1994, Merten has finished second and 15th.

Her self-confidence is soaring along with her spot on the tour. "I used to play and be in awe of the Bradleys and Sheehans and Lopezes," Merton said. "Now I know I won't go out and embarrass myself."

Pat Bradley finished the day 5 over, and Sheehan was even. What drives Merten past these other champions?

"I never give up. I like difficult conditions," she said. "I knew I couldn't let my guard down, and today I worked hard on that. Today I played like it was a Sunday."

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