- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 4, 2009

Strolling down the 15th fairway Friday, John Merrick had a slice of Congressional Country Club all to himself.

It was Merrick, caddie John Rathouz, a scorer, a standard-bearer and nobody else.

Gone was Bubba Watson because of allergies.

Absent was Jeff Overton because of injury.

The withdrawals left Merrick with the rare opportunity of playing alone for the final nine holes of his second round at the AT&T; National.

It isn’t uncommon for a player to compete by himself during the weekend if the cut produces an odd number of players; the tournament usually assigns a club member to fill that spot. But losing both playing partners on a Thursday or Friday is rare. It was a first for Merrick, a 27-year-old Californian who entered the week with more than $1.2 million in earnings this year.

“It was a little harder to get into rhythm, but it really wasn’t that different,” he said.

Said Rathouz: “It was just not normal.”

An opening-round 76 hurt Merrick’s hopes of making a 15th cut in 19 starts this year. He carded an even-par 70 on Friday, but his two-day score of 146 fell four shots short of the cut line.

Watson called it a weekend after shooting 40 on the opening nine Thursday. Overton, a co-leader after 36 holes at last year’s AT&T; National, shot 69 in the first round, but a wrist injury contributed to a 4-over 39 on Friday before he withdrew at the turn.

Tour officials offered to take one of the players in the group behind Merrick — Matt Bettencourt, Bill Lunde or Danny Lee — to join him, but Merrick declined. The unusual circumstances meant Merrick usually faced waits before each of his shots.

“If you go out as a single leading the pack, that would have been a totally different story for John — you can play in two hours,” Rathouz said.

Merrick occasionally plays practice rounds alone, but he knew something different was happening when players would point from another fairway or tee box to ask what happened to Overton.

Rathouz’s role also was different. Caddies usually work together to tend the pin and rake the bunkers.

“We talked more than we usually talk,” Rathouz said. “It changed because I was getting the pin, cleaning the ball and doing everything by myself. But I had the time to do it. There was plenty of time out there.”

Merrick and Rathouz did plenty of waiting.

On the tee box at the 16th, Merrick sat on a cooler and Rathouz on the golf bag for nearly 10 minutes while the group in front of them reached the green.

But flying solo initially seemed to suit Merrick, whose 2009 highlights include a second at the Bob Hope Classic and a tie for sixth at the Masters.

On No. 10, he drained an 18-foot birdie putt and followed with four consecutive pars.

At No. 15, his 9-iron from 146 yards set up a three-foot birdie putt. His tee shot on the par-5 16th found the primary rough, but he punched out and made birdie when his 8-iron from 100 yards gave him a four-foot birdie putt.

But Merrick was unable to continue the binge. His last two tee shots were errant, and he missed par putts of 20 and 18 feet.

By the end of his round, Merrick was being followed by several dozen fans who cheered him on, even during long waits.

“We were prisoners out there between two groups,” Rathouz said. “It was pretty odd.”

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