DETROIT – Troy Merritt (67, 14 under par) hasn’t been in the hunt in a while, and as an Iowa native is trying to keep the trophy in the Midwest.
Joaquin Niemann (68, 14 under) finished second in the first two tournaments of 2021 – once in a playoff – and would be winning one for Santiago, Chile.
Thanks to Merritt’s first-ever hole-in-one on the PGA TOUR, a 5-iron that one-hopped into the hole at the 219-yard 11th, and Niemann going bogey-free through 54 holes, those two are tied for the lead with one round remaining at the Rocket Mortgage Classic. But it could be a wild Sunday at birdie-friendly Detroit Golf Club with 14 players within four of the lead.
“Yeah, the big thing is when you get out in front, don’t go back to the guys behind you,” said Merritt, 35, who won 21 tournaments at Boise State and will be aiming for his third win on TOUR. “Make them come and get you.
“I know that we’re tied now,” he added, “so the mindset will be to make a few birdies but don’t give any away, make them work to come and get us and hopefully it’s good enough in the end.”
Niemann is a perfect 13 for 13 in scrambling, and has 14 par saves from four feet or longer this week.
The last player to go bogey-free and win on TOUR was J.T. Poston at the 2019 Wyndham Championship, and he was the first to accomplish it since Lee Trevino in 1974. Niemann was in danger of giving a shot back when he got out of position at the par-5 14th hole but made what he called “a huge save” from a greenside bunker to keep his streak going.
The FedExCup No. 25 and world No. 30, Niemann, who has made 21 cuts in 22 starts this year,has already won once on TOUR at the tender age of 22. But that win total could easily be two or three by now had things broken differently for him at the Sentry Tournament of Champions (playoff loss) and Sony Open in Hawaii (T2) in January.
He contends he got over it quickly.
“You’ve just got to be patient,” he said. “I think everybody’s going to have their own moment and I had my moment pretty early. And then I was trying to find my moment, I went into a playoff in Hawaii, finished second the week after also.
“But I took it pretty easy,” he continued. “I just wanted to keep going. I knew that when everything went well, I would win again, so I just didn’t want to put myself in that stress.”
Sunday is expected to bring warmer temperatures, where conditions the last two days have been fall-like. The course is still soft from copious rain and has historically yielded low scores.
Bryson DeChambeau shoot a final-round 65 to win last year. Nate Lashley shot 25 under to win in 2019. If you assume that anyone as far back as five shots still has a chance, that brings in a massive group at 9 under, including Rocket Mortgage ambassador Rickie Fowler.
“Obviously the leaders, they’re all pretty close, right next to each other,” Niemann said, “so I know that I need to go low tomorrow to give myself a chance to win.”
Added Hank Lebioda (66, one back), a lefty whose T5 at the Travelers Championship last week was his only top-10 finish in 19 previous starts this season, “The way this course is playing, it’s (yielding) quite a few birdies. It will probably be the same tomorrow, so I’ll get my cracks.”
Merritt, 35, won the 2015 Quicken Loans National and 2018 Barbasol Championship but came into this week at 101st in the FedExCup. He said putting was the problem, but leads the field in Strokes Gained: Putting (+6.659) and is second in driving accuracy (36/42) through three rounds.
“Last couple Sundays for sure – U.S. Open and Memorial and last week Travelers – haven’t been anything special,” he said, “so we’re due to get back on track so hopefully that’s this week.”