Bel Air's Esteemed 'Little Pro,' Eddie Merrins, Has Seen it All
August 14, 2017 | LOS ANGELES, CALIF.
By Ron Driscoll, USGA
As he tracked a tee shot on the par-3 10th hole at Bel-Air Country Club, the dapper, diminutive man uttered a complimentary “nice shot.” Little did the competitors know as they completed their final practice rounds for the 117th U.S. Amateur Championship that the man behind them has likely seen more tee shots on that hole than anyone.
If they had taken a moment to read the plaque as they crossed the iconic suspension bridge to the 10th green, they would have seen his name – Eddie Merrins, affectionately known throughout the game as “The Little Pro,” a man who is equally esteemed for his personality and his skill as an instructor, which has landed him in more than a dozen halls of fame.
Merrins also played the game a fair bit before devoting his skills to teaching, competing in four U.S. Amateurs, five U.S. Opens, six PGA Championships and two Open Championships. He owns eight medals from USGA qualifying events, and he once defeated Sam Snead in an exhibition match in his hometown of Meridian, Miss., as a teenager, though he insists that Snead played poorly because he was so perturbed by the damage the red clay roads of Meridian had inflicted on the shiny new car Snead had just won at the Texas Open.
Merrins was a two-time Southeastern Conference champion at Louisiana State and the runner-up in the 1952 NCAA Championship, but perhaps he saw the writing on the wall around that time as well.
“I was once playing with Arnold Palmer and leading with 10 holes to play,” Merrins recounted. “I played the next seven holes 1 under, but Arnold played them 7 under. I always say that I was the first to see Arnie’s charge.”
Merrins has seen and influenced many in his career, the last 55 years of which have occurred at Bel-Air, where he is the golf professional emeritus after 41 years as head professional. Here are nine takeaways from a visit with Merrins, author of the renowned instruction book “Swing the Handle, Not the Clubhead” (1973):
1. The U.S. Amateur returns to Bel-Air: “I was somewhat responsible for the U.S. Amateur being here in 1976, and I did my bit to see that it came back. I know the meaning of a championship like this, and I know what participating is all about, because I’ve been there myself as a youngster. This is an unforgettable experience for these 312 players from all over the world. No matter what they do, there’s only one man who’s going to leave here unscathed, but the others will have great memories.”
2. The U.S. Amateur as a measuring stick: “I played in this four times (1952-55), and it’s still the biggest amateur championship in the world. When you gain entry into it, you’re proving to yourself that you belong, and that’s what players have to do when they’re aspiring to competitive greatness. The [PGA] Tour players all can play, but they have to prove to themselves when the time comes that they can do what’s needed.”
3. On the makeup of today’s golfer: “A golfer is made up of four parts: physical well-being; mental outlook; a technical component that includes their ability to swing the club, hit the shots and produce the score; and finally, a spiritual part. Call it religion, call it philosophy, but there’s something to the spiritual quality of golf. You can see it in a player like Jordan Spieth; you can see his character come out in competition. He trained himself to compete well, to measure up to the competition. And the reason for the evolution of the game is that they’re gotten better in all four aspects.”
4. On the future of the game: “We’re trying to grow the game at an older level, but as seen in the Drive, Chip & Putt Championship, kids gravitate to golf like a duck to water. Parents want to see their youngsters get a chance, and the character elements that are taught along with the program are wonderful, because they’re improving society at a young level.”
5. On golf becoming more popular: “So many parents are seeing the trauma that goes with head injuries in football, and seeing other sports where their youngsters are banged-up. Nobody gets hurt in golf, other than mentally, if they have a bad round. Golf and tennis are social games, where they get their exercise, but they get a lot more out of it. And kids know no fear at that young age. If they’re given the right kind of leadership, there’s no end to what they can accomplish.”
6. On Bel-Air’s setting: “Someone was once quoted as saying that there will always be an England. Well, there will always be a Bel-Air. It’s earned its rightful place. This club is made up of a lot of interesting characters – from the movie industry, from the world of athletics, from business, from professional fields. It’s quite a conglomeration of people who are drawn here because of the game, this club and the golf course. And speaking of the course, it’s an engineering marvel, with the suspension bridge, four tunnels, and the elevator that takes you from the tunnel up into the clubhouse and to the 10th tee. The walk is gentle, even though the terrain is very hilly.”
7: On Bel-Air’s gnarly rough: “I think players are going to encounter problems around the greens that they’re maybe not prepared to handle. The bermudagrass is very wiry, and the ball sits down in that grass. When you play that recovery shot, your club hits the ground before the ball and you get a very inconsistent result. I think of a guy like [two-time U.S. Open champion] Julius Boros, who was beautiful to watch out of the heavy grass around the green. He had this languid swing and he could get up and down practically every time.”
8. On breaks you don’t see on Bel-Air’s greens: “People don’t understand the ‘mountain-effect’ greens here, but don’t forget – we’re sitting on the side of the Santa Monica Mountains. The characteristic of any mountain course is that your putt will break away from the mountain. I used to tell my UCLA boys when they were freshmen, and by their fourth year, maybe they understood. You just don’t believe something you can’t see.”
9. On coaching UCLA for 14 years: “It was a challenge for me to test my teaching ability through the medium of a golf team in competition. What I learned in that 14-year association (1975-89) made me a much better teacher. We learned to play the game, as opposed to just swinging the club and hitting the shot, and it gave us an advantage on our competition. We enjoyed a 10-year stretch where we won 57 tournaments as a team (including the 1988 NCAA title), 25 tournaments individually, and we had 16 All-America players.”
He didn’t say it, but the 5-foot-7 Merrins might have been most proud of a Bruin player who resembled him.
“Corey Pavin was a little 140-pound guy who looked like a refugee from the library,” said Merrins. “He was competing against football-player types, great athletes who could hit it 50 or 60 yards past him, but in his mind, he was inwardly just as big as they were, and he could get it in the hole faster than they did. I think he would admit that he was given an opportunity to learn a lot here, and he did.”
Merrins didn’t say it, but he didn’t need to. The Little Pro saw something of himself in Pavin, the 1995 U.S. Open champion who was nicknamed “Bulldog.” And maybe he recalled his own decision to change course from a competitive career to one as an instructor. As Merrins once said, “Playing is for personal satisfaction, but teaching is a labor of love.”
Ron Driscoll is the manager of editorial services for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.