- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 2, 2015

GAINESVILLE, Va. — Troy Merritt was the last competitor to finish his round at the Quicken Loans National on Sunday. He stood 34 feet away from the pin as a grandstand packed with spectators silently watched him line up his putt.

The ball ambled over the neatly manicured green on the 18th hole at Robert Trent Jones Golf Club. It crossed back and forth over a line from where it began to the hole, rising and falling with the topography of the land, mirroring the green’s gentle slopes and curvatures.

It fell out of sight when it reached its intended destination, bringing the crowd’s attention back to the 29-year-old standing in front of a Lake Manassas backdrop.

Merritt had become a spectator in his own right after taking what proved to be his final stroke of the tournament and watching the ball roll away from him. When it fell, giving him his fifth birdie on the afternoon and the tournament win, Merritt shrugged.

“To be quite honest, I wasn’t trying to make it,” Merritt said. “I was trying to lag it, and if I had two feet left I was going to be lagging that one as well. I wanted to make sure I got it in in three. Nonetheless, it had pretty perfect pace.”

It wasn’t until the ball was three feet from the pin that Merritt realized his putt was headed for the hole and the reality of his impending victory began to hit him.

“It straightened out just a shade and looked like it was maybe going to miss on the left side and it wiggled just enough right,” Merritt said. “The Golf Gods decided that’s just enough for this week, this one is going in and we’ll go celebrate.”

The field at this year’s Quicken Loans National may not have been as strong as in years past, but Merritt was still a long shot to bring home the top prize. He had been cut from the last five tournaments he entered, and he sat at No. 180 in the Official World Golf Rankings and No. 123 in the FedExCup standings at the start of the event.

“Ever since the summer started, I’ve had two over-par rounds and I’ve missed every cut,” Merritt said. “The problem is that I’ve been shooting even par and 1-under par. That gets you lapped out here.”

Merritt knew that there was something about his game that was slightly off, but he couldn’t quite identify it until this week, when he found that his hands were out of position as he swung the club.

“It gave me just that little bit more freedom in the backswing, little extra time and to hit a lot of quality golf shots this week,” Merritt said.

“Then we found something Saturday morning with the alignment of the putter. The shoulders needed to squared up a little bit. We found the hole a lot on Saturday, and that’s why I’m here.”

Merritt shot 4-under through his first 36 holes, which tied him for 35th. The rest of the field could only watch as he rocketed to the top of the leaderboard on Saturday, shooting a 10-under-par 61 and setting a tournament record in the process.

The 61 also tied the PGA Tour’s all-time low set by David Frost in 1994, and it wasn’t the first time the 29-year-old hit that mark. He shot the same score during his second round at the RBC Heritage at Harbour Town Links in Hilton Head, South Carolina in April.

Merritt turned pro in 2008 after finishing his collegiate career at Boise State. His first professional win came a year later at the 2009 Mexico Open, but he would have to wait until Sunday for his second.

He and Kevin Chappell led the field at 14-under to begin the fourth and final round of play, with Rickie Fowler one stroke behind. Chappell shot even par on the front nine to remain in contention, but plummeted down the leaderboard as a 6-over 77 left him tied for 18th. Merritt, meanwhile clung to his post despite Rickie Fowler, who finished second, and David Lingmerth, who was third, threatening to take the lead.

Fowler finished his third round one stroke back of the lead. After a slow start on Sunday, he found his rhythm and worked his way back into contention.

“Not the start that I wanted to get off to but nice to kind of turn things around and make some swings coming in,” Fowler said. “Had to at least scare Troy a little bit.”

Merritt knew that even with his relatively poor start, he couldn’t count Fowler out. Merritt avoided a scare Fowler attempted to give him by not allowing him to draw too close. When he sank that final putt, the tournament’s top prize wasn’t all that Merritt won. He also received a bear hug from Fowler, a close friend since joining the PGA Tour as part of the same rookie class.

“Really excited for him. It’s a huge win.” Fowler said. “He hasn’t played in a major yet. That’s changing. See him in Akron.”

For much of the day, Bill Haas was Merritt’s closest competitor. Haas set a blistering pace on the front nine to pencil in five birdies on a clean scorecard, but it was a pace he couldn’t maintain coming in. Haas shot 1-under on the day and 12-under for the tournament, which tied him for fourth.

Tiger Woods delivered a strong performance through the first two rounds of his own tournament thanks to his consistently strong approach. Both days, Woods hit 14 of 18 greens in regulation. Saturday, however, the 39-year-old hit just 10 of 18 greens in regulation and required 29 putts to complete the round at a 3-over 74.

But Woods closed out Sunday with a 3-under 68 to wrap up one of his better outings in recent months. He left the tournament feeling that he took “some big strides” in his game.

“I’m getting some speed back, which is nice,” Woods said. “I’m starting to pump the ball out there again.”

Woods kicked off his day with a clean scorecard through 10 before a disappointing three-putt birdie on 11 that included a miss just three feet out from the pin. Still, Woods felt that he showed improvement during the course of the tournament.

“My short game starting to come back to where it used to be,” he added. “Everything is kind of trending in the correct direction now.”

Defending champion Justin Rose closed out his third round three strokes behind Merritt and Chappell. He was in the same position through 54 holes of last year’s tournament, but this time finished at 12-under.

Also six strokes back of Merritt were Justin Thomas, Danny Lee, Carl Pettersson and Jason Bohn.

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