McCarthy: Merkulov’s heartfelt journey

Yarolslav Merkulov in the rain during Thursday match play of the 62nd U. S. Junior Amateur Championship.

Yarolslav Merkulov in the rain during Thursday match play of the 62nd U. S. Junior Amateur Championship.

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BEDMINSTER, N.J. – The heart is often used as a symbol of courage in the face of a daunting challenge.

Yaroslav Merkulov has heart.

At No. 113 in the Golfweek/Titleist Junior Rankings, he wasn’t expected to advance deep at the U.S. Junior Amateur.

But as Merkulov plodded his way through the bracket – including a 7-and-6 victory in the Round of 16 Thursday to set up a quarterfinal match with top-ranked Jordan Spieth on Friday – it’s worth noting his story and path to the U.S. Junior.

“I was too young to understand it,” Merkulov said. “Even now, I don’t understand it.”

Merkulov moved to the U.S. from Russia on his fourth birthday, February 28, 1996.

“Some birthday present, huh?” said Merkulov, who moved to Penfield, N.Y., along with his Russian mother, Tatyana, and American step-father, Steve.

Merkulov lived the childhood of a typical American kid. He played many sports and took an active interest in soccer, despite the fact that he was smaller than most of his peers.

When he was 10, Merkulov collapsed and passed out during a soccer game. At the time, it was chalked up to dehydration or overexertion, but further tests at Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, N.Y., revealed devastating news to Merkulov and his family.

“It was a shock,” said Tatyana, a doctor of internal medicine. “I will never forget driving home from the hospital; we were both crying.”

“I was mainly crying because she was crying,” Yaroslav said.

While Yaroslav did not fully comprehend his condition, his mother was well aware of the gravity of his situation.

Merkulov had two separate heart defects. The main defect – called a sinus venosus defect – meant that two of Merkulov’s four pulmonary veins were directed toward the right part of his heart (right atrium) when they should have entered the left part of his heart (left atrium).

In essence, Merkulov’s heart wasn’t working as efficiently and his body wasn’t receiving 100 percent of the oxygen from his lungs. As a result, his heart was severely enlarged.

Tatyana was told that if her son didn’t have an operation, he would die by the time he was 17.

The waiting period, however, for open-heart surgeries was six months to a year. An incredible bit of luck – and last-minute cancellation – had Merulov in the operating room just 10 days after his diagnosis, on September 10, 2003.

“I feel more lucky as I get older because I was told it could kill me by [now],” Merkulov said.

After a successful operation that now has blood was flowing to his heart properly, Merkulov’s heart has stopped growing at an abnormal rate. However, because his body has begun operating to its full efficiency, the once-diminutive Merkulov grew at an incredible rate.

After the surgery, soccer wasn’t an option for a period of time so golf, once something to occupy time, became a focal point of his Merkulov’s life. His game flourished.

Fast-forward to 2009 and Merkulov has the opportunity to knock off Spieth, the country’s best junior golfer.

“Last year, I would have been really nervous about playing him, but I’m not letting that affect me here,” he said.

A commitment to course management has given Merkulov a renewed focus that he said he’ll bring into his match with Spieth.

“Whatever happens, it’s been a great week,” Merkulov said. “I’m glad to be where I am.”

And that’s heart, the theme of Merkulov’s story.

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