Troy Merritt was groggy from a nap. He had just contended all the way to the watery end at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, jetted off to Augusta National and played his second practice round there in advance of his first Masters.
He was too tired for platitudes.
“Augusta is a very long golf course for me,” said the slender 30-year-old. “It sets up for a nice draw off the tee, which isn’t my favorite ball flight. And it sets up for a high fade to the greens, which isn’t my favorite ball flight.”
In other words, Merritt could be dangerous.
Coming off five straight missed cuts last summer, Merritt toured Robert Trent Jones Golf Club in Gainesville, Va., and decided it didn’t suit him. Then he shot a tournament-record 61 in the third round and followed it up with a 67 to win the Quicken Loans National for his first PGA Tour win and a trip to Augusta National.
Merritt–a human highlight reel when he’s on, a dirge of missed cuts when he’s not, and unbothered and unfazed either way–is the most intriguing of the 19 Masters rookies in the field. “When he gets his confidence up, he’ll stand in there against anybody, and it is scary,” says Kevin Burton, Merritt’s coach at Boise State. It’s so scary that after transferring from Division II Winona (Minn.) State, Merritt won nine tournaments in two years, including an NCAA-record five straight as a senior.
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How’s this for moxie? Playing the last hole of a tournament in Santa Barbara with a seven-shot lead, Merritt faced a tucked pin and a second shot at the par-5 that required a long carry over water. No Boise State golfer had ever shot under 200 for 54 holes, and Merritt needed a 4 to do it. He hit 5-iron, made birdie and signed for a 199 total.
Merritt lives in Idaho. When he wants to see his swing coach, Phoenix Country Club pro Steve Dahlby, he catches an early flight south, plays 54 holes and comes back to wife Courtney and their sons, Scout, 4, and Dodge, 2, the next night. “I’m low-maintenance,” he says. “When I was growing up, I wouldn’t play for four or five months, but those first couple of rounds I’d just pick it back up. There was something inside of me; I knew how to play this game. It’s the same on Tour.”
Call it the Tao of Troy: hot streaks, cold streaks, he knows his game will eventually come around.
After missing five of six cuts coming into the Palmer, Merritt had a back nine at Bay Hill on Sunday that was so electric–five straight birdies, two hole-outs from off the green–he almost won on style points alone. NBC’s Dan Hicks called him the Wizard, a nod to Merritt’s Harry Potter obsession. Johnny Miller, who hails from Utah, gushed, “What did you expect out of an Idaho spud? I love that state!”
The performance was of a piece with Merritt’s career. He has always been able to heat up like the Big Dog–Merritt’s nickname ever since his boyhood infatuation with hoopster Glenn Robinson–at the flip of a switch.
As Merritt remembers it, he has always been streaky and sneaky good. He hit .680 in his last year of baseball, in junior high school in Idaho, before he gave up the sport for golf. As a high school senior in Minnesota–the family moved there after his freshman year–he scored 40 points in the first game of a sectional basketball tournament.
Still, when asked to describe Troy’s most remarkable athletic feat or quality, his dad, Mark, doesn’t hesitate: “His temperament.”
That composure has been key. After winning the PGA Tour Q school in 2009 and the $1 million Kodak Challenge, a seasonlong contest based on a player’s performance on a single hole at 30 Tour stops, in ’10, Merritt barely kept his card, at 125th on the money list. A self-taught player, he had lost his natural ball flight. His alignment was off. He’d moved to Arizona because it was full of Tour pros, but it felt wrong.
By 2012 he was back to the Web.com tour. He hired Dahlby to help him get back to what had worked at Winona State (12 wins) and Boise State, and he moved the family back to Idaho. A solid performance at the 2013 Web.com tour finals got him back to the big Tour, and he has made the most of his second chance.
“I knew how to play this game,” says Merritt. “It’s the same on Tour.”
Burton is seeing more and more of the guy whose name is all over the Broncos’ record books. The record-tying 61 at Harbour Town last year; the win at RTJ; the back nine at Bay Hill–it’s all been vintage Merritt. Could he win as much as he did in college?
“Probably not,” Merritt says, “but I think I have the game where I could win once, twice, maybe three times a year, given the opportunities.”
That includes events such as the WGCs and the Masters. For the par-3 tournament, his dad will carry his bag, while Scout and Dodge will don tiny white coveralls. The Big Dog, the Idaho Spud, the Wizard–whatever you want to call him, Troy Merritt is starting to feel dangerous.