Merkulov Showing Heart in Quarterfinal Run
September 18, 2019 | Parker, Colo.
By David Shefter, USGA
Nobody can ever accuse Yaroslav Merkulov of not having any heart. Certainly not on the golf course, where he was one of the best juniors to come out of western New York in the past two decades. Nor off it, where a congenital defect nearly cost him his life.
And definitely not during this week’s U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship as he’s battled through a foot/arch injury to reach the quarterfinals at Colorado Golf Club. Merkulov, 27, of Penfield, N.Y., has been walking with a noticeable limp throughout the championship, which thus far has included two stroke-play rounds and three matches. He’ll tee it up on Wednesday morning at 7:15 a.m. CDT against Joseph Deraney, of Tupelo, Miss.
Ever since sustaining the injury at stroke-play co-host CommonGround Golf Course during a practice round last Thursday, Merkulov has been popping anti-inflammatory pills and icing the back of his right foot nightly to ease the pain and subside any swelling.
Had it been any other golf event, Merkulov likely would have withdrawn.
“I’m just like, this is not good,” said Merkulov, who needed medical attention halfway through his Round-of-64 match on Monday. “So been icing it, [taking] ibuprofen, lidocaine, kind of the works. I have the CBD (cannabidiol) oil with me as well. Literally everything I can do to try to calm it down and it’s not working. I was in the emergency room Sunday night trying to get it looked at, and nothing. But it’s not affecting my swing at all.”
Such adversity isn’t new for Merkulov. When he was 10 years old, he collapsed while playing soccer. At the time, nobody knew he had a congenital heart condition that should have been detected at birth. But Merkulov was born in Russia and the country, at the time, didn’t have the medical technology to diagnose his problem.
When his mother, Tatyana, emigrated to the U.S. to chase the American dream with her two children – Merkulov’s sister Katya is six years older – when Yaroslav was 4, his U.S. pediatrician didn’t see the issue either. At the time, Merkulov collapsed and passed out at a soccer game. Medical personnel chalked it up to overexertion and dehydration. Tatyana, a doctor of internal medicine, thought otherwise.
A visit to Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester revealed Merkulov actually had two heart defects. In layman’s terms, his lungs weren’t receiving the necessary oxygen, and his heart was severely enlarged.
“There was a 1-inch hole in my heart,” said Merkulov.
Doctors told him it would be four to five months before surgery could be performed, but when an opening arose earlier than expected, Merkulov had the procedure 10 days after the diagnosis. In fact, he was at Oak Hill Country Club attending the 2003 PGA Championship when the call came to his stepfather, Steven (Yaroslav’s biological father has not been in his life for more than 25 years).
The one downside from the operation: doctors advised him to stay away from contact sports.
“Try telling an 11-year-old boy that you can’t go running around,” said Merkulov. “Golf was my outlet. Fortunately, we lived right across the street from Penfield Country Club.”
Merkulov quickly exceled at the game in which he had previously just dabbled. He rose to become one of the country’s top juniors, advancing to the quarterfinals of the 2009 U.S. Junior Amateur (he lost, 1 down, to eventual champion Jordan Spieth). He twice won the New York State Junior Amateur and won the 87th New York State Amateur at the age of 17, tying the mark for the youngest champion. He was an American Junior Golf Association All-American and recruited by top schools.
Merkulov chose Duke University, but his college/amateur career never matched what he did as a junior. While he did qualify for the 2013 U.S. Amateur at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., he never produced any definitive results at Duke. In fact, he left the team the spring semester of his senior season for personal reasons “that I don’t want to discuss.”
He graduated in 2014 and got an MBA from Duke’s business school. Golf, it seemed, was in his rearview mirror. But while working on Wall Street, he watched Spieth win the 2015 Masters. The same Jordan Spieth he nearly defeated six years earlier.
“I really wanted to give this a try,” he said of professional golf.
So he left the financial world for the golf world. To help fund his dream, he bused tables at a Rochester restaurant and caddied at Oak Hill Country Club. If he caddied in the morning, he would practice in the afternoon. Working nights also left his days free to work on his game.
In 2016, he missed qualifying for the Mackenzie Tour-PGA Tour Canada by one stroke. He also toiled on various mini-tours without much success. Then he befriended Todd Davis through his caddie gig at Oak Hill. He offered him a sales job at Precision Optical Transceivers, a telecommunications company where he has worked the past two years.
In May, Merkulov got his amateur status back and has fallen in love with golf all over again. He’s regained the same passion he had as a junior.
“The biggest difference is I’m enjoying the game now,” he said. “When I was growing up, the end game was to try to make the [PGA] Tour. [But] I wasn’t really enjoying it. I was really burnt out. Now I work eight hours and afterward, I cannot wait to tee it up.”
Just after getting his amateur status back, Merkulov advanced to the sectional stage of U.S. Open qualifying. In early August, he captured the Rochester District Golf Association title by four strokes, right around the time he qualified for the U.S. Mid-Amateur, his first USGA championship appearance in six years.
“I am out here feeling the pressure,” he said. “I love the pressure. Those are the moments I live for. I relish it.”
When he returns home to Rochester – he still lives at home with his mom – he’s finally planning to purchase his own home in Greece (a suburb), which is close to Ridgemont Country Club where he plays, and the airport. Merkulov does a lot of traveling for his job, so being single allows him to be away from home for several weeks at a time.
Of course, that new home will need to be outfitted with furniture, an entertainment system and bedding. Three more victories over the next two days would give Merkulov one additional piece of hardware to add to the décor: the Robert T. Jones Jr. Memorial Trophy.
Talk about a heart-pounding moment.
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.