Endless Disney possibilities on Merritt's mind

Troy Merritt lines up his putt at No. 17, the Kodak Challenge hole, during the third round of the Children's Miracle Network Classic.

Troy Merritt lines up his putt at No. 17, the Kodak Challenge hole, during the third round of the Children's Miracle Network Classic.

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Imagine this potential scenario at the Children’s Miracle Network Classic: Troy Merritt, fresh from losing his PGA Tour playing privileges, is trotted out for a sudden-death playoff for the $1 million first prize in the gimmicky, but entertaining, Kodak Challenge.

One million dollars always makes a good consolation prize. But in spite of the instant gratification a seven-figure check can provide, a 2011 PGA Tour card is the biggest prize available to Merritt, a 25-year-old rookie.

After three rounds at the Children’s Miracle Network Classic, Merritt is projected to finish 123rd on the PGA Tour money list; the top 125 retain full PGA Tour playing privileges. He’s also tied with Rickie Fowler and Aaron Baddeley for first place in the Kodak Challenge, a year-long competition that combines a player’s top scores from one pre-determined, picturesque hole per tournament.

“My first goal for the week, and for the year, was to maintain my Tour card,” Merritt said. “I’d like to say (Sunday) will be a stress-free day. ... I have to go out there and play solid golf tomorrow.

“It puts me in the state of mind that I need to play well, and that’s a good place to be. You don’t want to go out there and play nervous. That’s why I’m going to go out there and let it rip, try and hit the fairways and greens, and try and roll in a 3 on 17.”

photo

Troy Merritt cleans up after hitting from the hazard at No. 17 during the third round of the Children's Miracle Network Classic.

He could’ve clinched the card and the $1 million earlier this week.

A birdie at the par-4 17th, this week’s Kodak Challenge hole, at Disney’s Magnolia Course would’ve given him the Kodak title. He has one more chance to win it outright when he comes to the 17th Sunday. If he pars, a three-way, sudden-death playoff between Merritt, Baddeley and Fowler will follow the tournament.

Merritt started the final week of the PGA Tour season 121st on the money list. After three rounds at Disney, he’s projected to finish 123rd on the money list. It’ll take a perfect storm for Merritt to lose his card, but it’s possible.

He didn’t help himself with his poor play Saturday afternoon.

Merritt made birdie on four of his first seven holes Saturday, but his troubles started at the very hole that could make him an instant millionaire. He drove in the hazard and made double bogey on the 487-yard, par-4, then made three more bogeys to shoot 73. He’s tied for 64th.

Ryan Palmer, who played with Merritt on Saturday, knows what Merritt is feeling. Palmer came to the ’07 Disney event needing a good week to keep his card. Players will try to say the season’s final week is like every other, but it’s not.

“It’s no fun,” Palmer said of trying to keep a card at Disney. “It’s definitely more pressure, because you know this is it.”

There were times Saturday that Merritt fell to 125th on the projected money list because of movement near the top of the leaderboard.

A large check for Merritt is unlikely this week, meaning his fate will be determined mostly by those in contention. There are 11 players behind Merritt on the projected money list that are tied for 15th or better. They could pass him with a Sunday charge.

Those tied for 15th are 10 under par for 54 holes, four shots back of second place, which pays $507,600. Merritt has earned $760,798 this season.

Mark Wilson, who’s currently projected at No. 125, is tied for seventh, and could pass Merritt by moving up the leaderboard. Michael Connell, who’s projected 124th, is tied for 15th and could do the same. Brett Wetterich, who’s tied for third, could pass Merritt if he finishes second Sunday; Johnson Wagner, who’s tied for seventh, could pass Merritt with a third-place finish.

Merritt’s rookie season started promisingly, with a tie for 20th in his first event, the Sony Open. He also tied for 15th in his third event, the Farmers Insurance Open. He earned $159,770 in his first three events.

After a third-place finish in April’s Zurich Classic, his 11th start of the year, Merritt seemed a lock to keep his card. He’d earned $594,970 to that point. Merritt has just one top 25 in 17 starts since, earning barely more in that span ($165,828) than he did in his first three starts this season.

That’d all be an afterthought if he keeps his card Sunday, even moreso if makes his $1 million.

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