Merritt wins Kodak Challenge in playoff

Troy Merritt hugs his wife Courtney after winning the Kodak Challenge in a playoff.

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – After a dizzying hourlong wait, Troy Merritt became the last player to secure a PGA Tour card for 2011. So when it came time to tee it up once more for a final crack at $1 million, it proved a timely reprive from one of the sport’s biggest stress-fests.

In a bizarre ending to the year’s final PGA Tour event, Merritt, Rickie Fowler and Aaron Baddeley played the 17th hole on the Magnolia Course at Disney World to determine not the winner of the Children’s Miracle Network Classic, but the Kodak Challenge champion. The playoff for the $1 million payoff didn’t last long: Merritt stuck a pitching wedge to 18 inches and tapped in for birdie, claiming the hefty bonus awarded to the player who posts the best cumulative score on 18 out of 30 predetermined holes from various Tour events.

So, what now?

“Well, the first thing I’m going to do is buy my wife a new car,” Merritt said. (In the coming days Courtney Merritt will trade in her Toyota Corolla for a Lexus SUV.) And while the monetary bump was nice – Merritt earned more at Disney than the tournament winner, Robert Garrigus ($846,000) – it paled in comparison to the security of wrapping up a PGA Tour card for 2011.

“I wouldn’t say it was a stress-free day,” said Merritt, 25. “But it certainly was a nice ending.”

Merritt shot a final-round 67 Sunday at Disney, finishing in a tie for 30th, but the Tour rookie spent the afternoon wondering whether that was enough to retain full playing privileges for next season. He played his final hole projected at No. 126 on the money list, before Johnson Wagner double-bogeyed 16. For finishing 125th on the money list, Merritt earned $786,977.

“I think the most nervous I was after my round was just sitting in the chair making sure I didn’t do anything foolish on camera,” said Merritt, who watched the live telecast on TV monitors near the putting green. “After I knew that I was in, all the nerves left and there wasn’t really a whole lot to do except to go out there and hit some good shots on the Kodak hole. And that’s exactly what I did.”

The 17th hole at Magnolia measured 430 yards for the playoff, with water looming left. Merritt bombed a drive down the middle, and from 133 yards stiffed a pitching wedge to tap-in range.

Where was that shot, Merritt was asked, during the actual tournament?

“I used to play all types of sports with my brothers growing up . . . it would come down to the wire,” he said. “And I guess I kind of did that this year, not only with the Kodak Challenge but also my Tour card. So I need to knock that habit out and do a little better.”

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