JERSEY CITY — Troy Merritt knew the gravity of thoracic outlet syndrome, the condition that created a foot-long blood clot in his arm last summer. He was well aware that some athletes never come all the way back from the surgery to repair it. He just chose to focus on the ones who were as good as new.
“I spoke with Jason Vargas, a pitcher for the Mets who got traded. I played with him last December and he said he had a couple friends, pitchers, who had it done,” Merritt said after shooting a bogey-free, course-record-tying, 9-under-par 62 Thursday in the first round of the Northern Trust. “Just to hear that they got back out after a few months and had no issues, that was pretty positive.”
The only part that did not resonate with Merritt, 33, was the “few months” of recovery. He is not the type to sit around. Exactly one year ago, he played in the PGA Championship only six days after emergency surgery to remove the clot, which had swollen one arm to twice the size of the other.
At the time, he had no regrets about the quick comeback and he nearly made the cut. But he acknowledged then that doctors told him the clot likely was caused by TOS, in which blood vessels and nerves become compressed between the collarbone and the first rib.
He finally agreed to have the rather intense surgery — involving the removal of the top rib — in January. “The doctor at Baylor said it would be three to six months, and I came back about seven or eight weeks after the procedure. Much earlier than expected,” he said after making nine pars and nine birdies at Liberty National and taking a one-stroke lead over Dustin Johnson in the first round of the FedEx Cup Playoffs opening tournament.
“I guess when you don’t have a lot of muscle to start with, you don’t need long to build it back up,” Merritt said.
Don’t let him kid you. He is physically strong enough to have won two PGA Tour events and mentally strong enough to have played through intense pain all last season, before and after the blood-clot surgery. In fact, he won the Barbasol Championship last July with his arm throbbing. He didn’t shy away from the TOS surgery and did not back off from jumping back into play in a hurry.
“You know, I think the swing has felt a lot more consistently better since having that rib out,” he said, adding that this summer has been “feast or famine — it’s either been ‘missed the cut’ or top-10.” The problem had nothing to do with his putter.
That changed Thursday on a course that was soft from Wednesday night storms. Kevin Kisner and Jon Rahm each shot 7 under and Rory McIlroy was among those at 6 under. Tiger Woods’ 4 over was an aberration.
Merritt had a string of four consecutive birdies on the back nine (his first nine holes) and made three birdies in a row on the front. “The greens were rolling beautiful this morning. I just had to focus on the line and speed,” he said. He was most proud of making a 16-footer for par on No. 7 to preserve his clean round.
He didn’t say it, but he can be proud of overcoming a dicey surgery that seems to have derailed the career of former Mets pitcher Matt Harvey.
“It’s a little bit different, pitchers to golfers. We put a little bit less stress on that part of the body,” Merritt said, offering this advice to Harvey and others: “Just keep fighting.”
As for the golf game of Vargas, whom he met in Arizona through his swing coach, the Northern Trust’s early leader said, “He hits it hard.”