Ace on No. 11, his first on PGA Tour, propels Troy Merritt to share of 54-lead at RMC

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — The 11th hole at Detroit Golf Club, a 218-yard par 3, has played the second-most difficult at this week's Rocket Mortgage Classic, and it was statistically the third-toughest during Saturday's third round.

Troy Merritt apparently missed the memo.

Merritt, an Idaho resident with two PGA Tour wins to his credit, pulled a hard 5 iron over a soft 4, drew it slightly to a front left pin and watched as the ball one-hopped and disappeared into the cup for an ace, delighting a crowd that had been rather quiet since three of the tournament's headliners, Phil Mickelson, Bubba Watson and Rickie Fowler, finished their rounds hours earlier. 

Troy Merritt retrieves his ball after his ace.

Already the leader by one, that hole-in-one extended it to three and by day's end Merritt was tied with Chile's Joaquin Niemann at 14 under entering Sunday's closing round.

It was Merritt's first ace on the PGA Tour, the second this week in Detroit, and the fourth in the tournament's three-year history — but first on 11, where homeowners got to see the feat from their own backyard

"First and foremost, it's awesome to have the fans back out here whooping and hollering the good shots, commiserating with the bad shots and even hearing some of the comments you probably don't want to hear," said Merritt, who finished tied for eighth last year, when there were no fans. "It was fantastic, obviously, to give them something to yell about."

Merritt (67) and Niemann (68), bogey-free for the week, were to sleep on a one-shot lead over Hank Lebioda (66), the lesser-known lefty in the field who missed the cut in two previous Rockets, and Australian Cam Davis (67), both seeking their first career win. Brandon Hagy (68) was two back.

In all, 24 players were to enter the final round within five shots of the lead, including Fowler, the fan favorite who was at 9 under after a 68. Watson (67), the two-time Masters champion, was at 8 under.

Steamy, hot conditions are expected Sunday on a course that already was finally starting to firm up Saturday after a week of heavy rain. The course played to an average of nearly two strokes under par Saturday, more than a shot easier than Friday despite players playing the ball down (no lift, clean and place) for the first time all week. Sunday figures to be a shootout, too. There've been multiple 63s in this event. Something even lower than that isn't out of the question.

"Quite a few birdies," Lebioda said, of his strategy for Sunday, when he'll chase his first PGA Tour win.

Said Merritt, of his pedal-to-the-medal plan: "Make them work to come and get us."

Said Niemann: "I need to go low."




Merritt, who last won at the 2018 Barbasol Championship and made his first win the 2015 Quicken Loans National (the tournament replaced on the schedule by the RMC three years ago), opened with a 4-under 32 on his front nine, before the fireworks on No. 11. He followed that with a bogey, but salvaged a scrambling par on the par-4 13th. Both the 12th and 13th started with drives wide right, in the rough.

He found the left rough off the tee at 18, and again made an impressive par, curling in a tricky, 6-foot, left-to-righter on arguably the toughest green on a course full of them.

Merritt closed with a bogey and six pars after the ace, including pars at the gettable par-5 14th and 17th holes. It prompted the question whether the hole-in-one got the best of his emotions. He's not convinced.

"I don't think so," said Merritt, who's leading the field in strokes gained putting this week, and is 2-for-3 in closing the deal on the PGA Tour when leading after 54 holes. "We had time to settle down before the next tee shot. I'm not going to say that my adrenaline wasn't pumping or that I wasn't feeling anything. ... My driver swing on 12, I just hit a poor shot. And I hit a poor one on 13, but then got it right back in the groove.

"I had time to recover."

He could become the first player to win a tournament while making an ace since Webb Simpson at the 2020 Phoenix Open.

While Merritt, now 35, got his first win at age 29, Niemann banked his at just 20, two years ago at The Greenbrier — which, like the RMC, is a shootout venue where Niemann finished 21 under to lift the trophy. It might take a similar number for him to be celebrating on the back patio at DGC on Sunday night, as the sun sets in the shadows of Palmer Park.

Joaquin Niemann waits to putt on the ninth green during the third round.

Niemann has played the first 54 holes without a single bogey. He came close to seeing that streak stopped at the par-5 14th, when his third shot found the right green-side bunker, short-siding himself to a tough right pin. But he blasted out to 4 feet and made the putt.

He's missed 13 greens this week, and has gotten up and down each time.

Niemann also is driving it beautifully, second in driving accuracy and 10th in distance on a course that traditionally rewards both those stats as 2020 champion Bryson DeChambeau learned.

"My whole game's been there," said Niemann, the No. 30-ranked player in the world who tied for fifth here in 2019, "and hopefully will stay there."

Asked if he'll be scoreboard-watching and looking at who's ahead of him Sunday, he said, "Hopefully try to look back." Niemann lost in a playoff to Harris English at the year-opening Tournament of Champions in Hawaii, and has another runner-up this season, four top-10s and 11 top-25s.

It's been nearly two years since a PGA Tour player won a tournament without making a bogey — J.T. Poston at the 2019 Wyndham Championship, which was held in August that year. Andrew Putnam was the last player to go bogey-free in a 72-hole tournament, tying for seventh at this year's Phoenix Open.

The United Kingdom's Tom Lewis, the 36-hole co-leader, dropped back on Moving Day with a 1-under 71. That's how good the scoring conditions were. Only 12 of the 77 players left finished over par. Lewis was in a logjam at 11 under, three back, along with Jason Korkak (67), last year's third-place finisher Kevin Kisner (69), Richy Werenski (69), Pat Perez (69) and Chris Kirk (70).

Kirk was in serious contention entering the final round a year ago, two weeks after reviving his career with a Korn Ferry Tour win, but stumbled on Sunday.

First-round leader Davis Thompson, fresh out of school at Georgia and in this tournament on a sponsor's exemption, was at 8 under after a 72.

Max Homa (74) and Matthew Wolf (73), who finished runner-up to DeChambeau last year, dropped well down the leaderboard and probably out of contention, at 7 under and 6 under, respectively.

Twitter: @tonypaul1984