GAINESVILLE, Va. -- When it was all but over, when Troy Merritt was walking down the final hole Sunday afternoon with a 2-stroke lead, when he was preparing to lag a birdie attempt toward the cup that would wind up diving into the bottom just for the heck of it, he received the largest ovation of his career.
Spectators crowded around nearby, craning their necks, clapping their hands and shouting their appreciation. Merritt was on the verge of clinching the Quicken Loans National title for his first career PGA Tour victory, so this was new ground for him. He smiled and tipped his cap toward the fans.
When the applause died down, he turned to caddie Scott Sajtinac and in his typical understated fashion whispered, "That was nice."
He could have been referring to a few things. The ovation? Sure. The impending win? Obviously. Or maybe he was simply alluding to walking down the final hole on a Sunday afternoon, a phenomenon he hadn't encountered in nearly two full months.
Merritt's results from his last half-dozen events read like something out of a far-fetched Hollywood script: Missed cut, missed cut, missed cut, missed cut, missed cut, win. He'd endured five consecutive starts without a single paycheck, five weeks of slamming the proverbial trunk on a Friday and spending the weekend watching his peers fly past him on the season-long standings.
"Ever since the summer started, I've had two over-par rounds and I've missed every cut," he explained. "The problem is that I've been shooting even par and 1-under par. That gets you lapped out here."
Through it all, he insists, he remained "frustrated but still peaceful." Other players might have implemented major changes -- fire a caddie, retool the swing, put new clubs in the bag -- but Merritt continued to plug away, telling anyone who would listen that he was close to playing much better golf.
If that sounds familiar, it should.
Those are similar to the words tournament host Tiger Woods has offered throughout this trying season, preaching patience as he goes through the process of improvement. But Woods is Woods, of course, and Merritt is Merritt, and so the 14-time major champion is scrutinized for his struggles, with few observers allowing the story to play itself to fruition.
On the heels of one player completing that process and finding his name on the winner's paycheck, there exists a lesson -- if not for the players themselves, then perhaps for everyone watching them, expecting immediate results.
"You just don't give up," Merritt said. "I mean, if you feel like things are close, you keep grinding because there's just that one little thing. Like Tiger has been saying, there's the one little shot for him to get his round going and keep him going. We found that one little thing. That's all it is. It's always close and you just need to find it."
Working on the Robert Trent Jones Golf Club practice range Tuesday afternoon, Merritt found something. Based on a suggestion from Sajtinac, he tweaked his hand position on the club at address and started seeing better results in his ball flight.
It's the type of thing that sounds inconsequential at the time -- maybe not for him, but for the whole of the tournament, where 119 other players were each making slight tweaks to their own games, hoping this would be their week to claim the trophy.
But again, there's a lesson to be learned here.
The fine line between success and failure on the PGA Tour can often be as thin as a slight tweak at address. Merritt knew this when he finished in solo third place at the RBC Heritage back in April, moving into the 60s on the points list and assuming he'd keep his card. He still knew it entering this week, when those five missed cuts had dropped him to 123rd, just three spots clear of potentially losing those playing privileges for next season.
"We started dropping close to 10 spots a week and all of a sudden it was like, now we're 123," Sajtinac said. "So yeah, there was a little bit of tension there, but I never noticed any difference in his personality at all. He's the same guy, every day."
"I was never down on myself, mainly because I never give up," Merritt boasted. "As long as I'm on the golf course, I'm going to give it my best effort. ... I always go out there and give my full attention -- even if I'm out of it, even if I'm 5 shots off the cut line. Even if I'm tied for 50th on Sunday afternoon coming down 18, I'm going to put 100 percent focus into the golf shot because that's what I've been taught to do."
There are more lessons in that statement. More lessons for his fellow pros and more lessons for anyone too quick to judge based on recent results.
There's an old saying in the financial industry: Past performance is not an indicator of future success. It rings true in the golf industry, too. Merritt is simply the latest example, the latest turnaround winner teaching a few lessons in the process.