Read through the bios of the 80 Drive, Chip and Putt finalists and the obvious golf heroes get mentioned – Tiger Woods, Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler…
Clay Merchent, a 15-year-old from Noblesville, Ind., veers from the usual suspects.
His hero in life: Charles Howell III.
Favorite golfer: Charles Howell III “because he has always been nice to me and lets me practice with him.”
Favorite Masters moment: “Being invited to the Masters in 2012 by Charles Howell III.”
It turns out Merchent’s second family residence in Florida is in Isleworth, two doors down from Howell. The Augusta native who has earned $32.5 million playing the PGA Tour has been a mentor to the young Merchent, as has Clay’s PGA club professional father, Mike.
“He’s really kind of taken me under his wing and been by my side since day one,” Merchent said of Howell. “He’s one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet and has treated my family really well.”
“There are a lot of pros at Isleworth who have always been good to Clay – Lee Janzen, John Cook, Brian Davis – but there was a special place in Clay’s heart for Charles,” Mike Merchent said.
Howell said he saw a little bit of himself in the 8-year-old Merchent when he first saw him practicing with his father around Isleworth.
“He’s always had a great work ethic,” Howell said. “That’s been one thing I’ve always been partial to and cheered for people who work hard. I’d see Clay out hitting balls late, and I’d go out and play a few holes, and Clay would still be on the range. I’ve taken an interest in him because of that. He’s always been a grinder and a worker, and when I see someone like that with talent, for sure he’ll make it.”
The Merchents have gone to see Howell play in the John Deere Classic, walking inside the ropes with him during pro-ams. Howell invited then-10-year-old Clay and his father to the Masters in 2012, the last time he qualified to play. They spent a night with Howell’s family in Augusta and got to see him make an eagle on the 15th hole on Friday en route to finishing tied for 19th.
“I told him earlier that year if he got in I’d come up and watch,” Merchent said. “So we stayed there the whole week and watched him play some good golf. The whole experience that Augusta provides is something that can’t be duplicated. It’s a golfer’s paradise. … You kind of have to see it for yourself.”
Now Merchent is the one competing at Augusta National on Sunday while Howell tries to win the Houston Open to get invited back. Merchent didn’t make it past the first stage in 2014 or the subregional in 2015, but made it through all the stages last summer, winning his regional at Oakmont by 12 points to earn a place among the 10 boys 14-15 finalists. He said it was figuring out the right strategy for putting that put him over the top.
“Driving and chipping are the two strongest parts of my game,” Merchent said. “I’m an aggressive putter overall, and I’ll miss a putt a few feet past. The strategy this time was almost trying to lay up and not worrying about missing them – keeping it inside the close ring.”
Making it to Augusta is a dream for a kid whose parents own Purgatory Golf Club in Indiana and who can pick the ear of tour professionals when they’re using the facilities at Isleworth.
“I’m lucky to have a dad who’s been in the golf business since he was my age and he’s my swing coach on top of everything,” Merchent said. “So I’ve learned everything from my dad, really. But when I have a question that my dad can’t answer, not being a tour player, I go to Charles and he’s been great about answering those questions.”
Howell has seen Merchent grow into a scratch golfer and believes he has a future in the game.
“It’s actually been really cool to watch someone grow up and go from hitting the ball kind of short and straight, and all of the sudden he sprouts up like a beanpole and he’s another young kid who hits it a mile,” Howell said. “Now college coaches are calling and asking me, ‘What do you know about this Clay Merchent kid?’”
As a high school sophomore, Merchent still has time to figure out his college options and path to the tour. On Sunday, he’ll get to compete in his hero’s hometown in an event designed to inspire the next generation of champions. This time his whole family is along for the ride, including his mother, Tenna, and younger brother, Asher.
“As it gets a little closer, he gets more excited,” said his father. “It’s one of those lifelong dreams. I grew up watching the Punt, Pass &Kick and thought that was the coolest thing on Monday Night Football. So I thought it was a phenomenal idea that all the governing bodies got together and put the Drive, Chip and Putt together. The fact that the Masters was willing to jump on board with this is amazing. It’s one of the things that has traction in golf and youth golf in particular.”
Merchent will age out of Drive, Chip and Putt eligibility after this year, but he plans to follow Howell’s advice and absorb the experience. Down the road, he’d like to compete in the big tournament with his hero.
“No matter what the result is – and hopefully I bring home the hardware – it’s going to be a great day and a lot of fun,” Merchent said. “That’s the most important part. Hopefully it won’t be a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”