Merritt, Niemann share lead in Rocket Mortgage Classic

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Troy Merritt drives off the fourth tee during the third round of the Rocket Mortgage Classic golf tournament, Saturday, July 3, 2021, at the Detroit Golf Club in Detroit. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

DETROIT (AP) — Troy Merritt took off his cap and briefly bowed his head to acknowledge a roaring crowd after the first ace of his PGA Tour career.

He didn’t get to enjoy the moment for long.

Merritt’s hole-in-one gave him a three-shot lead, but he gave a stroke back on the next hole with a bogey and shot a 5-under 67 on Saturday. Joaquin Niemann took advantage of the opening to share the third-round lead at the Rocket Mortgage Classic.

Niemann, who shared the 36-hole lead with Tom Lewis, pulled into a tie by two-putting from 46 feet at 17. He parred the final hole, the toughest one on Detroit Golf Club, for a 68.

Hank Lebioda (66) and Cam Davis (67) were a stroke back, and Brandon Hagy (68) was another shot behind. Lewis (71) was among six players three shots back with a legitimate shot on the relatively short course with receptive greens.

“The mindset will be make a few birdies, but don’t give any away,” Merritt said. “Make them work to come and get us and hopefully it’s good enough in the end.”

Rickie Fowler (68) was in a pack of 10 five shots back, while first-rounder leader Davis Thompson (72) was six shots back. After opening with a course-record tying 63, Thompson has played the last 36 holes in 1 over with rounds of 73 and 72

The 35-year-old Merritt made his first hole-in-one on the PGA Tour — from 219 yards with a 5-iron off one bounce — to give him a three-stroke advantage.

Merritt was fired up, and the fans were, too, a year after no spectators were allowed to attend the 2020 Rocket Mortgage Classic due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s awesome to have the fans back out here, whooping and hollering the good shots,” he said. “Commiserating with the bad shots and even hearing some of the comments you probably don’t want to hear.””

After his bogey, he closed with with six straight pars.

Merritt, who is from Iowa, won his second PGA Tour title at the 2018 Barbasol Championship. The next year, he missed two months of competition due to a surgery that removed a rib after he had blood clot that run from his chest to his left elbow.

He entered this week with three top-10 finishes this year — including a pair of them in May — to put him within one of matching the most he has had in a year since making his PGA Tour debut in 2010.

Merritt moved atop the leaderboard quickly after starting his round Saturday at 9 under, one shot off the lead. He had four birdies through seven holes and lamented not having another, missing a 14-foot putt on the ninth hole.

His ace on the par-3 11th put him at 6 under for the day and he may have had a hard time composing himself.

“We had time to settle down before the next tee shot,” Merritt insisted.

Merritt, though, missed the fairway to the right on the 493-yard, par-4 12th. Then, he was long on a chip and 14-foot putt, giving him a bogey and cutting his lead to a stroke.

The 22-year-old Niemann had two birdies over his last five holes to put him in a position to win for the second time on tour. He became the first player from Chile to win on the PGA Tour at The Greenbrier in 2019.

“Everybody’s going to have their own moment and I had my moment pretty early,” said Niemann, who has four top-10 finishes this season.

Defending champion Bryson DeChambeau missed the cut and left Detroit without speaking with reporters, leaving lingering questions about making a caddie change on the eve of the tournament that he didn’t address in an Instagrampost.

“Did not have my best this week, but that is golfsometimes,” DeChambeau wrote.

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Follow Larry Lage at https://twitter.com/LarryLage

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