On the day in late May 2016 when Whit Merrifield learned he had been called up to play Major League Baseball, the former University of South Carolina standout was in Tacoma, Wash., wrapping up a bucket-list outing: playing golf at Chambers Bay, site of the 2015 US Open Championship.
Merrifield, then a member of the Omaha Storm Chasers, the Triple-A franchise of the defending world champion Kansas City Royals, received a text message from his Omaha manager informing him of his call-up to “The Bigs.” A day later, KC’s new second baseman recorded his first major-league hit, a single in the Royals’ 5-2 loss to Boston.
The game was witnessed by his parents, sister, brother and fiancé, who flew to Kansas City for the long-awaited moment. “It’s hard to explain,” Merrifield later told the Kansas City Star newspaper. “You work your whole life in this game to get to this level.”
Since that day, Merrifield has had other big moments in earning a starting spot in the KC lineup, replacing veteran Omar Infante. But for South Carolina baseball fans, his biggest moment remains from the 2010 College World Series, when the then-center fielder’s RBI single vs. UCLA lifted the Gamecocks to the first of their back-to-back CWS titles.
Soon after, he was en route to professional baseball, playing for four Royals’ minor-league teams over six seasons before making the big club. Merrifield says it’s fitting he was on the 18th hole at Chambers Bay when he got the news, because after baseball, golf has been his sports passion.
“I started playing with my dad, who picked up the game late and became an avid player when I was growing up” in North Carolina, Merrifield says. “He got me into the game. Later, when I was playing travel ball, I didn’t get to play as much.”
At USC, though, and later in the minors, Merrifield found times to “sneak out and play,” he says. “I’m a huge golf fan. I love playing and watching it.”
While in Columbia, in fact, he became friends with the now-famed Bryan Brothers, George IV (who is Merrifield’s age) and younger sibling Wesley. And about the time Merrifield was realizing his lifelong dream of playing major league ball, Wesley Bryan also achieved his ambition, winning three times on the developmental Web.com Tour to earn promotion to the PGA Tour, starting in August 2016.
“Wesley’s my favorite PGA Tour player now,” Merrifield says. “I was a huge Tiger (Woods) fan growing up, and I also like Jordan Spieth,” who won that 2015 Open at Chambers Bay. “I followed Tiger when he was in his prime, but now I’ve got my own guy (Bryan) to follow.”
The two former Gamecocks athletes have played golf together a couple of times, along with George IV. Earlier in 2016, when Wesley was still on the Web.com Tour, he played in a tournament in – where else? – Kansas City. “I left him tickets to the Royals’ Friday night game that weekend,” Merrifield says.
In 2016-17 and beyond, Merrifield hopes to find time to return to Columbia, and maybe even get in some golf with the Bryans and other old friends. That’s what golf addicts do, after all.
Hometown: Advance, NC
Bio: Played center field for South Carolina baseball team, 2008-10; drafted by the Kansas City Royals of the American League in the ninth round of the 2010 Major League Baseball Draft; played for the minor league Burlington Bees, Wilmington Blue Rocks, Northwest Arkansas Naturals and Omaha Storm Chasers; called up to Kansas City on May 16, 2016 and became the Royals’ starting second baseman soon after, replacing Omar Infante.
Highlights: Renowned among Gamecocks baseball fans for hitting the game and College World Series-clinching RBI single in the bottom of the 11th inning to give South Carolina the first of its back-to-back CWS titles; played in 195 games at USC, hitting .329 with 27 home runs; in his first minor league season, hit .253 with five home runs; on June 13, 2016, hit his first Major League triple and home run in the same game against the Cleveland Indians; a song and video titled “Cool Whit” went viral on YouTube in July 2016, with “Cool Whit” T-shirts becoming popular with Kansas City fans.
Where I play: “The only courses in South Carolina I played were Windermere Golf Club and The Members Club at Woodcreek Farms. My uncle (Gary Hite) is a member at Woodcreek, and I think we had an alumni tournament there a few years ago. I didn’t get to play much in college, and I haven’t been back in South Carolina since I got out of school. My uncle Gary has won a state senior event and is pretty good; I’ll shoot anywhere from 85 on a good day to 90-91 on a so-so day. I hit enough good shots to keep going back, but not enough to get really good.”
Where I eat: “There’s tons of good spots in Columbia. Pawleys Front Porch is one of my favorites, a neat burger place in Five Points. We ate at Palmetto Pig a lot, it’s a barbecue joint where we could go and stuff our faces. I’d eat lunch at Fifth Avenue Deli five days a week if I could; they have the best sandwich in town. Groucho’s is always a good spot, and DiPrato’s was very good and was right near my house. Oh, and Cantina 76 on Devine Street was a favorite Tex-Mex place.”
What I do for fun: “My uncle Gary has a house on Lake Murray, so I would enjoy going there, and a lot of us would enjoy floating down the Broad River; there was a spot you could get in and float down the river. I didn’t have a lot of time outside of baseball, but in the summer it’s so hot in Columbia, you want to find a place on the water any time you can.”