- Troy Merritt needed to go to the hospital, but instead he went and won the Barbasol Championship last July, dodging disaster and realizing his dreams in the process.
BETHPAGE, N.Y. — Troy Merritt is many things—a two-time PGA Tour winner, a 33-year-old father of two, a genuinely funny dude with a sarcastic streak—but muscular is not one of them, so he knew something was off when he looked at his left arm and saw some girth.
“I had a bicep for a change,” he says.
The first inclination that something was wrong came in June of last year, in the form of a gentle tingling in his fingertips, like the feeling you get after bumping your funny bone. Then the swelling started in July and brought pain with it, worsening to the point that he couldn’t straighten his arm to full extension. He recalls being in the shower, trying to wash his hair when a shooting pain made even the mundane task impossible.
“I couldn’t get my arm up for more than a second. It just felt like something was going to come exploding out of my fingertips.”
But here’s what he could do: swing a golf club. And if he was physically capable of doing that, he sure as hell wasn’t going to see a doctor, because that doctor probably would have told him to stop playing golf. That simply wasn’t an option. Entering the Barbasol Championship last July—one of the more modest PGA Tour events, played opposite the British Open—he was outside the top 125 on the FedEx Cup points list, meaning he had work to do if he was to secure playing privileges for the following season.
“Just trying to keep my job, man,” he remembers. “I had no idea what it was. I thought maybe some nerves were kind of out of whack, since I had the tingling to start with.”
Blissfully ignorant, he mostly kept the pain to himself and teed it up in the Barbasol knowing every single swing would hurt. The good news is that he needed less swings than anyone else, because he won the golf tournament that week. And with that victory—even though it happened while the world’s best were off in Scotland navigating Carnoustie—came a prized two-year Tour exemption.
The gamble paid off. He had kept his job. But his arm kept getting bigger and more painful. By the Friday before the PGA Championship, the left arm was double the size of his right.
“And it was purple.”
Maybe you can ignore a ridiculously swollen arm, and maybe you can ignore a purple arm, but you can’t ignore a ridiculously swollen purple arm. Reluctantly—he was playing some of the best golf of his career—Merritt headed to a doctor back in Boise, Idaho, where he and his family call home. The inspecting doctor told him he needed an ultrasound to scan for a blood clot. And what a blood clot it was: a 12-inch behemoth that began just above his elbow and ran all the way into his chest.
The cause was thoracic outlet syndrome, where the clavicle and top rib are too close together. That affects either the nerve, the vein or the artery. (In Merritt’s case it was the vein, which led to the blood clot). It’s a condition rare among the general public but not uncommon to professional athletes—mainly pitchers, but former No. 1 NBA draft pick Markelle Fultz was also diagnosed with it.
At that point, Merritt had three options: go on blood thinners that would slowly dissolve it over time; have a catheter drip, which would have kept him in the hospital over night; or undergo a thrombectomy, a procedure to remove the clot.
The thrombectomy was the only one that gave him even the slightest chance of playing in the following week’s PGA Championship. So, naturally, that was the choice.
“Saw the doctor at 8 a.m. Had the ultrasound done at 10:30. Was in surgery around 2 o’clock. And I was back home by 5:30 that night.”
Two days later, he flew to St. Louis with no idea whether he’d be able to tee it up. The clot was gone and movement had returned, but the incision wound was still quite raw. He hit a few putts on Monday. Tuesday he expanded to hitting a few chip shots. On Wednesday he hit 40 full shots and, this may shock you, it caused quite a bit of pain. He sought out an ICU doctor, who told him to take a cocktail of four Advil and two Tylenol that night, then do it again in the morning before the round and see how he felt.
“I was like, ‘uhhhh, that’s not what it says on the bottle,’” Meritt says. “But I did it. The next morning, it didn’t hurt quite as much, so I was able to tee it up. And I actually hit the ball quite well.”
An uncooperative putter saw him miss the cut by one. It was a disappointment, but considerably less so when you remember he had surgery to remove a foot-long blood clot just five days before the tournament.
The thrombectomy allowed him to play out the rest of 2018, but it didn’t fix the underlying problem. That surgery had to wait until January of this year, when Merritt finally had an operation to remove the rib that caused the clot in the first place. Doctors told him that his recovery would take three months, but he made his return at March’s Players Championship, a full five weeks ahead of schedule. He once again missed the cut by one, then took a pre-planned month-long break before returning to action at the RBC Heritage, where he finished tied for 10th.
Merritt is back at Bethpage for another PGA Championship this week, albeit under considerably less dramatic circumstances. Not that he thinks he accomplished anything too noteworthy.
“I’ve played hurt my entire life…you grit it out. You get through it.”