LA QUINTA, Calif. – With six holes remaining Saturday in the third round of The American Express, it was starting to look like Steve Dahlby's two-week assignment as a caddie on the PGA Tour was about to come to an end.
The Menomonie native was on the bag of Troy Merritt, his longtime pupil as a teaching professional based out of Phoenix Country Club. Merritt hadn't gotten much out of his putter on the Nicklaus Tournament Course at PGA West and three bogeys in a row on the front nine had left him six shots shy of the cut line and the chance for him to play 18 more holes with his instructor Sunday on the Stadium Course.
"The putter hasn't been very hot all week," said Dahlby, whose golfer ranks sixth in total putting on the PGA Tour, but 134th in putting average. "He just kept doing what he's been doing, which was hitting it great, and then started making some putts."
The first fell on the par-4 second hole, his 11th, and that punctured a hole in the lid over the cup. Starting at the par-5 fourth hole, Merritt rattled off five birdies in a row to rally for a 6-under-par 30 on the front nine of the Nicklaus Tournament Course, finish with a 4-under 68 and, with a 54-hole total of 9-under 207, make the cut by a single shot.
"Five-under-par that last nine holes," Dahlby said. "And I think we needed every one of them so it was good."
For Dahlby, the final round of the AmEx will likely be his final round inside the ropes as Merritt's emergency caddie. His regular caddie, "Wayne-O Draino" Birch, has taken the week off after the birth of his son on Monday and Dahlby took over the bag last week at the Sony Open in Hawaii where Merritt shot 75-68 to miss the cut. Birch is expected back for the Waste Management Phoenix Open in two weeks, Dahlby said.
"It's been fun to caddie for him the last two weeks," said Dahlby, who has been working with Merritt the last seven years. "It's a different perspective than I get behind the ropes. I learned a little bit."
It's been valuable for Merritt, too.
"It's a little bit different, but he's looped a few times before and did just fine," Merritt said. "If I have a question or we're seeing the driver's off, the irons are off or the putter's off, I can go ahead and ask it right away and get some instant feedback vs. waiting until the end of the round. It's been nice."
Dahlby a former UW-Stout golfer who grew up in Wisconsin playing amateur golf (and later mini-tour golf) against the likes of Madison's Steve Stricker, has been based in Phoenix since joining the teaching staff at the Golf Digest Schools in 1991. After serving as director of instruction at Troon North Golf Club in Scottsdale from 1996 through 2007, he moved to Forest Highlands GC in Flagstaff for six years before returning to the Phoenix area, where he also co-hosts a radio show "Out of Bounds with Bernie and Dahlby."
"I used to be able to play a little bit," said Dahlby, who was ranked No. 17 among Arizona instructors in Golf Digest's 2019-20 state-by-state list. "But Strick beat me up when we were on the mini-tours and I figured out that maybe it wasn't mine to be the player. Fortunately, I got hooked up with the Golf Digest Schools during the early '90s and I have been coaching ever since."
Dahlby likes the direction Merritt's game is headed. Merritt, in his ninth season on the PGA Tour, had a career-high four top-10 finishes in 2019, highlighted by a runner-up at the Barracuda Championship, and finished 58th in the FedEx Cup standings.
This season, he was in the hunt at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open in Las Vegas and the RSM Classic in St. Simon Island, Ga., in the front half of the 2019-20 PGA Tour wrap-around schedule only to struggle in the final rounds of those two events. The past two weeks, slow starts have kept him out of contention, but Merritt praises Dahlby for his patience and "keeping it simple" with him and Dahlby believes Merritt is poised for big things.
"I think right now he's playing better than he ever has," Dahlby said. "It's just unfortunate this week the putts haven't fallen. But we still have another day so maybe we'll make a bunch (Sunday) and sneak up there."
Crossing the tees
Middleton native Jon Turcott, the regular caddie for Sepp Straka, won't be sneaking up on anybody in the final round. They teamed up for a 4-under 68 at La Quinta CC and entered the final round seven shots off the lead in a tie for ninth place. ... Saying it was "more of the same," Menomonee Falls native Mark Wilson shot his second straight 2-over 74 and, at 1-over 217, missed the cut by 10 shots. He will be on the call of next week's Farmers Insurance Open near San Diego for PGA Tour Radio.