By Alex Podlogar
VILLAGE OF PINEHURST, N.C. -- It's certainly not how you start.
Just ask Tyler Merkel.
Take the first five holes in each of the Ball State junior's three rounds at the Pinehurst Intercollegiate. On those 15 holes Merkel shot a combined score of 6 over.
The rest of the tournament? Merkel was 4 under.
Do the math, and it equals a one-stroke victory over VCU's Adam Ball. Merkel led Ball State to the team title as well following the Intercollegiate's third and final round Tuesday at Pinehurst No. 6.
"I've been struggling with getting off to good starts," said Merkel, who recorded four top-5 finishes in the first four fall events this season and finished at 2-over 214 at Pinehurst. "But once the rounds got going, I managed to find a way to get it going in the middle. I stayed patient and attacked when I knew I could attack."
He did just that Tuesday. Entering the final round with a two-shot lead after a 1-under-par 70 on No. 6 on Sunday and a 3-over 73 on Pinehurst No. 2 on Monday, Merkel again stumbled out of the gate, making bogey on two of his first four holes.
But he rallied with a birdie on the 515-yard par-5 sixth, sparking a run of four birdies in a span of six holes to move from two shots back in the early part of the round to three shots ahead. Merkel had bogeys on 13 and 14, but tapped in for par on 18 to clip Ball, closing with an even-par 71.
"Tyler's just very, very patient," said Ball State coach Mike Fleck. "Obviously, he's talented, but he also knows how to get the golf ball around the course even when he's not at his best."
Winning at Pinehurst was special for Merkel, who was second at the Intercollegiate a year ago on his way to qualifying for the NCAA Regional.
"It's amazing," he said, "especially being at No. 2 where they'll play the U.S. Open (in 2014). It's just a great confidence-booster."
Merkel led a Cardinals charge. Ball State entered the day tied for third, four shots back of VCU and Old Dominion. Tony Lazzara carded a 2-under 69 and was joined by rounds of even-par by Merkel, Alex Stinson and McCormick Clouser.
The team total of 2-under 282 made for a three-round aggregate of 885, three shots better than VCU and Richmond, which also shot 282 on Tuesday.
"The Pinehurst experience is special, and our guys appreciate that," Fleck said. "To have won here really means something."
Richmond's Daniel Walker shot the low round of the tournament on Tuesday after a 6-under 65 moved him from a tie for 13th to solo third at 4-over 216. Ball fired a 2-under 69 to finish second at 3-over 215.
Ball State Notes
Merkel, who posted his third career victory, has now finished among the top 5 individually in five of Ball State's six stroke-play events this year.
Lazzara placed fourth (220) for the highest finish of his career. His previous best came in Ball State's most recent stroke-play event when he placed fifth at the Pinetree Intercollegiate in October. He has now recorded four straight top-15 finishes.
Stinson finished in a tie for 22nd (226), while Clouser finished 30th (228). Joe Gasser rounded out the Ball State lineup in a tie for 33rd (230). Brodie Williams competed as an individual this week and finished in a tie for 36th (231).
This was Ball State's second tournament win of the season, and both have come at famous locations. The Cardinals' first victory came in October at Firestone Country Club.