Troy Merritt takes charge of The Northern Trust

A blemish-free 62 enabled Troy Merritt to reset his expectations for the FedEx Cup Playoffs after starting in the 72nd place. Dustin Johnson was also error-free as he lurks right behind the leader at 8-under 63

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Troy Merritt - Getty Images - PGA TOUR

PGA TOUR Report

09 August 2019: Troy Merritt’s focus has shifted after tying Liberty National’s course record in the first round of THE NORTHERN TRUST.

Merritt arrived in New Jersey ranked 72nd in the FedExCup, just outside the cut line to advance to next week’s BMW Championship. Moving onto the correct side of that demarcation was his first priority when he teed off Thursday.

Now, he’s thinking about his third PGA TOUR triumph. Scores were low Thursday after Liberty National was soaked by rain, and Merritt was the lowest of them all. He shot 62 to take a one-shot lead over Dustin Johnson after the morning wave completed play. Merritt tied the course record set by Kevin Chappell in the third round of the 2013 NORTHERN TRUST.

“We’re in a good position now to contend for the championship,” Merritt said. “That’s why we tee it up each week. Obviously this week, it’s a little bit different with just trying to get into next week … and now we can shift our focus from winning the golf tournament.”

Merritt’s round came a little more than a year after he had a blood clot removed from his left arm. The operation was on August 4, shortly after he won the Barbasol Championship.

That win and his strong start to this season gave him the freedom to have another procedure that fixed the cause of the clot. Merritt had a rib removed in January to relieve thoracic outlet syndrome. That condition is caused when blood vessels or nerves become compressed between the collarbone and first rib.

Merritt, who finished fourth in the season-opening Safeway Open, sat out until THE PLAYERS Championship. He still had a career-high four top-10s this season. He could end this season with the best FedExCup finish of his eight-year career. He finished 56th in 2015, the year he won the Quicken Loans National.

He said the elective procedure has paid dividends in his swing.

“I tended to get a little bit tight at the top of my swing, kind of where the rib was and I got a little bit quick at the top,” Merritt said. “Now I don’t get tight at the top and I can take my time and that usually helps out my tempo, and as a result, the swing’s been a lot better more often.”

He hit 14 greens Thursday, gaining more than 3 strokes with his approach play. He made seven of the nine putts he faced from 7 to 15 feet and holed two putts outside 15 feet. He gained 4.5 strokes with his putting Thursday.

A long par putt on the seventh hole, his 16th, may have been his biggest of the day, though. He had to lay up out of a fairway bunker on the par-4, leaving himself a third shot from outside 100 yards. He wedged to 15 feet and made the putt.

Merritt has advanced to the BMW Championship, which is reserved for the top 70 in the FedExCup standings, just once. He was 110th in this year’s standings until his runner-up finish two weeks ago at the Barracuda Championship. A win this week would move him inside the top 10 of the season-long standings.

“That putter was hot today and the greens were rolling beautifully and just took advantage of it,” he said.

 

STRONG START FOR SPIETH: Jordan Spieth played in the threesome of bubble boys for the BMW Championship. A strong start to THE NORTHERN TRUST could help him extend his season another week. Spieth, who started the week ranked 69th in the FedExCup, shot 4-under 67. It was one of the better scores shot on a windy Thursday afternoon.

The 2015 FedExCup champion has struggled this season, but he’s been able to get off to strong starts. He’s ranked 10th on TOUR in first-round scoring average. Thursday’s round was a strong rebound from Saturday’s 77 at the Wyndham Championship, which led to Spieth missing the 54-hole cut after entering the weekend in contention.

“Saturday was just a fluke day that would have happened whether I was No. 1 in the world or not,” Spieth said. “Everybody has those random days once, twice a year where you wanted to forget them. I just owed it to that and put me in a better frame of mind.”

He played Thursday alongside Matthew Wolff, whose strong start to his pro career mirrors Spieth’s. Both players won after turning pro with no status on any TOUR. Wolff, who is 70th in the FedExCup standings, shot 69 on Thursday. It was the first round Wolff and Spieth played together, and they walked side-by-side down several of the fairways.

“I told him, man, that’s just amazing what you’ve been able to do, and certainly ride that momentum,” Spieth said. “I love how aggressively he plays. It’s cool. It’s kind of like I definitely knew I used to play a little bit more that way and I kind of need to get back into that.”

TWO ELIMINATED: Some players’ seasons will end Friday. Those outside the top 70 in the FedExCup standings who miss the cut at Liberty National can head home. Two players’ Playoffs campaigns ended Thursday, though, after they withdrew from THE NORTHERN TRUST. Aaron Baddeley and Chris Stroud both pulled out of the tournament with back injuries.

Baddeley entered the week ranked 112th in the FedExCup. Still, this season was a step forward for the Australian. It ended a two-year hiatus from the Playoffs. He started this season with conditional status after finishing 132nd in the FedExCup, but started this season with a T4 finish at the Safeway Open after Monday qualifying for the event. It was one of three top-10 finishes this season, including a runner-up at the Puerto Rico Open.

Stroud was 94th in the standings. He fought hard to lock up his spot in the FedExCup Playoffs, finishing T4 at the John Deere Classic and T15 in the Barracuda Championship.