In the span of 11 days last summer, Troy Merritt went from on the top of the world in his golf game to wondering if he would ever swing a club in competition again. For good measure, he then voluntarily had a body part removed.
Merritt comes to this week’s 3M Open in Blaine not yet fully back to playing shape but on track to compete in 20 events this PGA Tour season.
Not too long ago that seemed rather far-fetched.
Despite a nagging tingling sensation in his left hand, Merritt won the rain-delayed Barbasol Championship last July 23, a soggy Monday finish that nabbed him a $630,000 payday, a two-year exemption on the PGA Tour and a spot in the PGA Championship at Bellerive. After posing for trophy shots, the former Spring Lake Park High School athlete hopped a flight to Ontario as a two-time winner on tour and six days later tied for 50th in the RBC Canadian Open.
By the time he signed his Sunday scorecard the tingling had intensified to full-on pain. A few days after arriving back home in Idaho, Merritt’s left arm was purple from shoulder to hand and swollen to twice its normal size.
Now as an established tour player, Merritt feared what he might hear about his suddenly damaged left arm.
After some prodding from his wife, he decided it was time to see a doctor. He prepared for the worst.
“I’ve played sports my whole life but never dealt with anything like that,” Merritt said. “No surgeries or anything. There was a whole lot of, ‘What’s going to happen?’ ”
An ultrasound on Aug. 3 revealed Merritt had a blood clot — “a rather large one,” he said — the result of thoracic outlet syndrome, where the clavicle and top rib grow too close together and pinch off the veins. He had surgery that day to relieve the clot, popped some pain meds and flew to St. Louis for the PGA Championship two days later.
“I probably shouldn’t have played,” Merritt said. “But I know the difference between playing hurt and playing injured. I felt like I could give it a go.”
He shot 71-70 in the major championship and, at 1 over, missed the cut by a stroke.
“A couple of putts on Friday,” Merritt sighed, “and I’m playing the weekend.”
Four months later, after Merritt played out the fall portion of the PGA Tour schedule, he flew to Dallas and went in for the second surgery of his life. The 33-year-old had the top rib removed on his left side.
“Just to make some space, you know?” Merritt said matter-of-factly. “The only other option was to be on blood thinners the rest of my life, and I didn’t want that.”
Peter Webb, Merritt’s agent since he turned professional in 2008, heard from specialists around the country cautioning of three to 12 months of rehabilitation following the elective procedure.
Merritt was back in action for the Players Championship on March 14, seven weeks after surgery.
“It just shows that this kid has a lot of true grit and a lot of toughness,” Webb said. “I know how hard he’s worked for so long to play at a high level and to take care of his family. He’s so grateful and thankful for what he gets to do for a living. If he shoots 61 or 81, he’s still on the PGA Tour.”
An athletic life
Merritt missed the cut at the Players but insists there were no surgery side effects. Unless you count the positive ones.
“My tempo’s been better,” he said. “I always felt a little tight at the top of my backswing, and that’s caused me to come into my downswing a little quick. I don’t feel that anymore; I have a chance to take my time at the top of the swing and my ball striking has been really solid ever since I had that rib out.”
Born in Iowa, Merritt earned his share of aches, pains and bruises growing up with two athletically charged brothers in southern Idaho.
After a family move at age 15, Merritt was the captain of the boys’ golf and basketball teams at Spring Lake Park, reaching the state tournament in both. He graduated in 2004 and made the men’s team at Winona State after a tryout. He won 12 tournaments with the Warriors, transferred to Boise State and won nine times with the Broncos. Five of those victories came in succession as a senior, earning him All-America honors.
Merritt held a Saturday lead at the Memorial in early June and has three top-25 finishes since his return, adding to a career earnings total of more than $7.5 million. But a cold putter has also resulted in three missed cuts, including over the weekend in Detroit at the inaugural Rocket Mortgage Classic.
He has limited experience with TPC Twin Cities, playing it a handful of times in high school, and hasn’t been back since Tom Lehman and the PGA Tour architects altered the layout for length and toughness.
That hasn’t diminished Merritt’s eagerness for the week.
In a field that includes Lehman, world No. 1 Brooks Koepka, Phil Mickelson, Jason Day, Patrick Reed and a host of other notable names, the holiday crowds figure to swell. Merritt will have his share of followers. Webb, his agent, said he’s been fielding calls almost daily for more ticket requests, and Merritt has used a fun-loving nature to answer questions from local friends and family wondering if he’s in the field.
“I’ve told a few I still have to come in early and qualify,” Merritt said. “But in reality, I’m really excited to put this on my schedule and have a fun week.”