On the range with Q-School champ Merritt

This story originally ran in the Sept. 28, 2008 issue of Golfweek.

It’s the golf equivalent of the butterfly effect: Troy Merritt gets his playing privileges cut at the course in Minneapolis at which he worked during summers off from college, and everything changes.

He takes a job at his uncle’s country club in Boise, Idaho, shoots 63 in the company of its head pro, who is friends with former PGA Tour pro and current Boise State coach Kevin Burton, and Merritt winds up transferring to the Broncos from Winona (Minn.) State, an NCAA Division II school. He wins seven titles for Boise State in his senior season en route to leading the nation in scoring average and earning second-team All-America honors.

It’s a story that college coaches dream about, but the good fortune worked both ways. Merritt, who had been self-taught, found his first instructor in Burton, who sees a lot of himself in his student. Burton has been content to mainly tweak and monitor Merritt’s game rather than overhaul.

“Coach has been around the block, and the things he tells me are coming true and paying dividends,” said Merritt, who plans to attend PGA Tour Q-School this fall.

Burton’s tips haven’t been big changes but rather more subtle counsel, such as a focus on posture and alignment, proper leg action, more patience and less obsessive grinding. Their connection has worked in part, Burton said, because it’s easy to correct a player in his own mold: a tall player and traditional swinger of the club with a lot of moving parts. The coach is convinced that Merritt has the game and the intangibles to succeed at the professional level.

“I expect him to rise up there pretty quick,” Burton said. “I don’t think he’ll have a problem getting a card somewhere this fall.”

Said Merritt: “I know there’s a learning curve whenever you bump up a level, whether it’s from high school to Division II, Division II to Division I, or from college to the pros. Hopefully it doesn’t take me too long.

“As for goals, I’ve never written them down. I play to the best of my ability and try to give myself a chance to succeed.”


Player and coach

Troy Merritt

Age: 22

Hometown: Fridley, Minn.

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Boise State coach Kevin Burton (left) and Troy Merritt

Ranking: No. 15, 2007-08 Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings

Height/Weight: 6 feet, 1 inch, 155 pounds

Gear: Titleist 907D2 driver (9.5 degree), Titleist 904F 3-wood (15 degree), Titleist 775CB irons (3-PW), Titleist Vokey Spin Milled wedges (52, 56 and 60 degree), Odyssey White Hot No. 2 putter, Titleist Pro V1 ball

Best results: Winner, seven college titles (including five consecutive) in 2007-08 season, including Western Athletic Conference Championship; led NCAA Division I in scoring average (69.53).

Kevin Burton

Age: 46

Title: Men’s coach, Boise State University, Boise, Idaho

Bio: Played on the PGA Tour in 1997 and on the Nationwide Tour in 1996 and 2001; PGA club professional for 22 years; won 2008 Rocky Mountain Section PGA Championship and 2008 Idaho Open by two shots over Merritt.


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Elvis knee

Burton describes Merritt’s swing as “prototypically traditional,” with a very long arc and a great deal of leg drive.

“Sometimes he gets his legs driving forward a little too much ,” Burton said. “When that left knee races ahead, his hips go up and out and he hits a bit of a flare. That’s typically only when he tries to swing too hard.”

Added Merritt: “We call it the ‘Elvis knee.’ ”

Occasionally, Burton will show Merritt the problem on videotape simply to make his student conscious of the issue, which they are careful not to overcorrect.

“We still want the leg drive, because that’s what gives him his accuracy,” Burton said.


Stacking the joints

At 6 feet, 3 inches, Burton knows well the issues that Merritt, who is 2 inches shorter, faces as a tall golfer.

“Typically with a taller player, you always have to be cognizant of their spine angle and set, that they’re not getting any curvature of the back – they tend to get hunched over the ball and don’t use their swing arc properly,” Burton said.

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“A rounded spine causes the arms to get more involved than they should, because the rotation gets limited, and you lose a little power and accuracy. I fought that my whole career.”

Burton helps Merritt fight it with a drill called “stacking the joints.”

“You stand square to the ball, push your hips all the way out to where your hamstrings are burning, tilt at the waist and then drop your arms into place,” Burton said. “That gets him into position all square-to-square. Once in a while, we throw down a club to make sure his eyes are OK with the alignment. But with a good spine angle, everything else gets lined up.”


The benefits of minimalism

Merritt’s best attribute, according to Burton, is his ability to get the ball around the course no matter his flaws on that particular day. In the full swing, that’s most often open shoulders at address, leading to an unconscious closing of the stance as compensation.

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Such issues don’t cause Merritt much concern.

“I try to keep the mechanics to a bare minimum,” said Merritt, who honed his game as a youth with as many as 150 rounds per summer – sometimes 45 holes per day – followed by practice with Nerf and Wiffle balls in the backyard.

“I don’t worry about what I did wrong after I hit a bad one. I don’t play that game. I know I’ll hit a better shot next time. I’ve got a natural, self-made swing, and I’ve taught myself how to hit the shots I need.”


Gearing up or down: 110 percent or 75 percent

“When I’m swinging well, I like to hit 105-, 110-percent shots,” Merritt said. “I normally hit my 9-iron 155 yards, but if I have 162 yards, I’m going to jump on that 9-iron a little bit if I’m swinging well, because I know exactly where it’s going.”

By contrast, Merritt and Burton have worked hard to gear down the player’s short-iron game, adding “dead-arm” shots.

“We taught him a shot to take spin off and keep the flight down a bit,” Burton said. “He plays the old (Titleist) Pro V1, so he can get a lot of spin on it if he’s not careful.”

“I’ve worked hard on that – it’s all arms,” Merritt said. “I put the ball in the middle of my stance or a hair back, close up the face just a little bit and knock it down with trajectory.

I also soften up my hands, choke down a bit, and make a three-quarter, 75-to-80-percent swing.

But at impact, it’s the same as if I’m hitting a full shot: I make sure I’m contacting the ball first and pinching it into the ground.”


Variety pack

Not all parts of the game mature at the same time, as Merritt’s progression illustrates.

“In high school, I used to pitch everything with a 56-degree wedge,” Merritt said. “It didn’t matter if I had to stop quick or run it 50 feet across the green. I’ve added a 60-degree flop shot and bump-and-runs with clubs down to a 7-iron. I try to hit the shot that’s going to allow me to save par the easiest.”

Merritt’s strong course management always has been a source of pride.

He credits the preaching of his father and uncle on the topic, as well as his small stature through much of high school.

“I was 5-foot-2 in ninth grade, and I wasn’t a great driver of the ball, so I was forced to hit 3-iron,” he recalled. “I developed a stinger, similar to Tiger’s, in high school; now I can hit it 250 yards off the tee with a low, piercing draw. I’m especially long with my irons because I hit a trap-draw when I can. I still put the driver away when I don’t need it.”

Said Burton: “He’s not an egomaniac. He’s sold on the fact that the two most important things are fairways and greens.”


Driveway for show

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Not all great short games are honed on the course; some come from around the house.

“I used to hit flop shots over the roof and around trees,” Merritt recalled. “My dad hated me taking divots in the yard, though he’d come out and watch. I’d flop it from one side of the driveway over to the other and try to have it come as close as possible to the edge.

“That work around the house probably gave me my creativity. It’s all imagination and having fun. It’s just fun to fool around with a wedge.”


Losing focus

Merritt credits Burton with improving his mental game in two key ways: Understanding how to focus more efficiently, and emphasizing visualization.

“I used to grind for five hours straight, and I’d walk off the course drained and with a huge headache,” Merritt said. “Coach has got me to where I grind 30 seconds to a minute over the shot (pictured left). After that, don’t think about it. Now I’ve got music in my head or I’m thinking about the clouds overhead while I walk down the fairway – anything but golf.”

The player added that Burton “preaches visualization – knowing what you want to do and seeing it in advance.”

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For full swing shots, this means picturing previously hit shots, either on that hole or elsewhere; on the greens, it means creating the exact line in his mind’s eye.

Comebacker kid

According to Burton, Merritt has to hole many knee-knockers because of his aggressiveness on his first roll. Burton said about 95 percent of the player’s approach putts go past the cup when not holed.

“Troy’s trying to make 35-footers; he’s not cozying them up there,” Burton said. “He’s

not afraid. He has wonderful determination on the greens.

“He’s determined to win, period, and you can’t teach that part of it.”

Merritt says that by getting putts past the hole, he knows what they should do coming back. And he wants to enjoy the fearlessness of youth.

“I’m still young enough where nerves aren’t an issue; I’m not afraid to have that comebacker for par,” he said. “My focus level is very good from 3 to 4 feet at the moment. I also feel like I make more mistakes finessing short putts, whether it’s the grain or whatnot, so ‘firm and in the back’ helps me out right now.”


Open case

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Merritt’s tendency with his putter, as with his full swing, is for his stance to get too open. This causes the blade to point left, resulting in a compensatory push-stroke. Burton and Merritt have used video and a training aid called the Z Factor Perfect Putting Machine (pictured right) to help improve the player’s alignments and ingrain a pendulum stroke with more arc.

In the end, Burton said, good putting is more mental than physical.

“Is Troy’s putting stroke perfect? No. But there aren’t many perfect putting strokes on Tour,” Burton said. “Ultimately, it’s the guy with the strongest head who’s going to make the most.”

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