Quick Round with Eddie Merrins

By Randall MellFebruary 5, 2010, 12:51 am

No teacher is more at home among stars than Eddie Merrins.

In the sartorial splendor of a bygone era, with his trademark tie and Tam O’Shanter cap, he will move comfortably among the biggest names on the driving range during the first round of the Northern Trust Open at Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles.

In some respects, Merrins defies the laws of the universe. Stars revolve around him. Affectionately known as “The Little Pro,” he has been a teacher to some of Hollywood ’s biggest stars. Merrins is the head professional emeritus at Bel Air Country Club, a special place he has called home since 1962.

In the world of entertainment, Merrins’ reach is far and wide among those who love the game. He was the pallbearer at the funeral of Ray Bolger, the actor who played the scarecrow in the 'Wizard of Oz.' Merrins also taught one of the Beatles, Ringo Starr. His students have included Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, George C. Scott, James Garner, Jack Nicholson, Will Smith, Hugh Grant and Celine Dion.

Merrins, 77, is at home in special places. He has played the Los Angeles Open at Riviera 16 times. After making a name for himself as a top amateur in Mississippi, he landed his first teaching job at famed Merion Golf Club. He played in more than 200 PGA Tour events, back when you needed a club professional job to make ends meet. He decided to devote himself to teaching when he took the head professional’s job at Bel Air 48 years ago. His “Swing-the-Handle” philosophy is documented in books and videos and his methods detailed at www.eddiemerrins.com.

With the PGA Tour in Los Angeles this week, I caught up with him for a Quick Round:

Of all the movie and TV stars you’ve seen play, who’s the best?

I think Jack Wagner (Melrose Place, General Hospital) is still considered the best player in Hollywood. Thomas Gibson (Criminal Minds) is a very good player, scratch to 2-handicap.

Does Jack Nicholson have game?

Jack Nicholson, if you look at the handicap board, it probably reads 10. In reality, if he had to count every stroke, there’s no telling what he might shoot, but he’s a good player. He’s won three or four member-guests. It’s not often he plays 18 holes, though. He’ll play nine holes with Joe Pesci or a couple of his cronies.

You saw Fred Astaire play. I’ve read that you said he was manic in his pursuit of distance, but how about his rhythm? Did his rhythm as a dancer translate in his golf swing?

When he walked into the grill room, he didn’t actually walk. He glided. He was a beautiful man to observe, a gentleman in every sense. He was athletic, with the dancing and golf. He played pretty darn well. There was a movie where he danced around 12 golf balls and made 12 swings in a row, hitting the balls as solidly as you could with perfect balance. Yes, he had beautiful rhythm.

The former Los Angeles Laker, Jerry West, is making his debut this week as the tournament director of the Northern Trust Open. He is also a member at Bel Air. What does his game reveal about him?

At one point, he was truly a 2- or 3-handicap. I think in the back of his mind, when he retired from basketball, he thought he could make the switch and play competitive golf at the highest levels, either on the Tour or as a top amateur, but he never gave himself the chance. He has so much pride, he can’t stand to play poorly. If he entered a competition and shot 80, it would drive him up a tree.

As great an athlete as he was, he was well suited to basketball, not necessarily golf. You can use your emotions in basketball, to make a play, steal a ball or make a shot. You don’t have to contain your emotions the way you do in golf.

You’ve helped PGA Tour pros win over the years. Stewart Cink gave you credit for an idea that helped him win at Hartford just two years ago. Tell us about that.

I saw him here at Riviera that year, and we talked about the psychology of winning and he said something about the conversation lodged in his mind. We talked about how there’s a difference between goals and rewards. Most players confuse rewards to be goals, like winning a tournament. Winning a tournament is not a goal but most people make it a goal. You don’t win trying to win. You win taking certain steps. You win playing shots, playing the hole, playing the round relative to par. If you do a good job at that, the winning comes.

You were part of two of the greatest duels with Tiger Woods in major championships. You taught Bob May, who lost in a playoff to Tiger Woods at the PGA Championship at Valhalla in 2000. And you helped Rocco Mediate, who lost to Woods in a playoff at the U.S. Open two years ago. How tough was it going through that twice?

I remember standing at the little tented area at Torrey Pines at the back end of the golf shop where players signed their scorecards on Sunday, and NBC’s Mark Rolfing and Roger Maltbie came over and congratulated me on Rocco winning the U.S. Open. I thought Rocco was going to get me even after Bobby’s loss, but no sooner had they said that and this huge roar erupted around the 18th green. Superman made another putt.

In both cases, with Bobby and Rocco, they were eyeball to eyeball with Tiger, but they weren’t really doing what the average person surmised. It’s not like they were playing head to head. They were into the science of the game, relating to par on the golf course as well as they could. They were like great stage performers. In both cases, with Tiger, they were not out there trying to beat each other, but playing off each other. Bobby and Rocco were playing the best they could. Ordinarily, that would have been good enough to win, but they were playing Superman.

Speaking of the science of the game, if I were a mad scientist seeking to construct the greatest player ever, whose swing would you recommend I copy? Who had the greatest swing you’ve ever seen?

Sam Snead. He had the most natural and effective golf swing. People ask me who the greatest player was, and I say Snead. That doesn’t mean he was the greatest champion, but he was the best at playing the course relative to par. Byron Nelson might have hit the ball straighter, and I think Hogan was the best striker. To me, Nicklaus is the epitome of what a champion should be. In time, Tiger Woods might knock him off the box and he will deserve all the credit he gets.

Whose short game would I want?

I go back to the old days. It could be Paul Runyan or Jerry Barber or Doug Ford. Doug had a fantastic short game. Today, all these guys have great short games.

Who was the best out of the sand?

Gary Player.

Who was the best putter?

I was asked to do a piece once listing golf’s best putters. I had Ben Crenshaw No. 1, Bobby Locke No. 2, Dave Stockton No. 3, Billy Casper No. 4 and Jerry Barber No. 5. I had Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus warming up in the bullpen.

The best mind?

Ben Hogan, close second would be Tiger Woods, and Jack Nicklaus. Those are the guys who concentrated better than anyone else in making the ball go from point A to point B. When they had to come up with a shot, they came up with a shot.

Getty Images

Elway to play in U.S. Senior Open qualifier

By Golf Channel DigitalMay 23, 2018, 10:25 pm

Tony Romo is not the only ex-QB teeing it up against the pros.

Denver Broncos general manager and Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway will try to qualify for the U.S. Senior Open next week, according to the Denver Post.

And why not? The qualifier and the senior major will be held in Colorado Springs at the Broadmoor. Elway is scheduled to tee off May 28 at 12:10 p.m. ET. The top two finishers will earn a spot in the U.S. Senior Open, June 27 to July 1.

Getty Images

Jutanugarn sisters: Different styles, similar results

By Associated PressMay 23, 2018, 10:20 pm

ANN ARBOR, Mich. - Ariya and Moriya Jutanugarn play golf and live life differently.

The sisters from Thailand do have the same goal in the LPGA, hoping their shot-to-shot focus leads to titles.

The Jutanugarns are two of six women with a shot at the Volvik Championship to become the circuit's first two-time winner this year. The first round begins Thursday at Travis Pointe Country Club, a course six winners are skipping to prepare elsewhere for next week's U.S. Women's Open at Shoal Creek in Alabama.

''Everybody has a chance to win every weekend,'' Moriya said. ''That's how hard it is on tour right now.''

Ariya competes with a grip-it-and-rip-it approach, usually hammering a 3-wood off the tee.

Moriya takes a more calculated approach, analyzing each shot patiently.

That's perhaps fitting because she's 16 months older than her sister.

''It's funny because when we think about something, it's always the different,'' she said. ''But we pretty much end up with the same idea.''

Off the course, they're also different.

The 22-year-old Ariya appears careful and guarded when having conversations with people she doesn't know well. The 23-year-old Moriya, meanwhile, enjoys engaging in interesting discussions with those who cross her path.

Their mother, Narumon, was with her daughters Wednesday and the three of them always stay together as a family. They don't cook during tournament weeks and opt to eat out, searching for good places like the sushi restaurant they've discovered near Travis Pointe.

Their father, Somboon, does not watch them play in person. They sisters say he has retired from owning a golf shop in Thailand.

''He doesn't travel anymore,'' Moriya Jutanugarn said.

Even if he is relegating to watching from the other side of the world, Somboon Jutanugarn must be proud of the way his daughters are playing.

Ariya became the first Thai winner in LPGA history in 2016, the same year she went on to win the inaugural Volvik Championship. She earned her eighth career victory last week in Virginia and is one of two players, along with Brooke Henderson, to have LPGA victories this year and the previous two years.

Moriya won for the first time in six years on the circuit last month in Los Angeles, joining Annika and Charlotta Sorenstam as the two pairs of sisters to have LPGA victories.

On the money list, Ariya is No. 1 and her sister is third.

In terms of playing regularly, no one is ahead of them.

Ariya is the only LPGA player to start and make the cut in all 12 events this year. Moriya Jutanugarn has also appeared in each tournament this year and failed to make the cut only once.

Instead of working in breaks to practice without competing or simply relax, they have entered every tournament so far and shrug their shoulders at the feat.

''It's not that bad, like 10 week in a row,'' Moriya said.

The LPGA is hosting an event about five miles from Michigan Stadium for a third straight year and hopes to keep coming back even though it doesn't have a title sponsor secured for 2019. LPGA Commissioner Mike Whan told reporters he's confident Ann Arbor will be a long-term home for the circuit.

''I can't tell you the specifics about how we're going to do that,'' Whan acknowledged.

LPGA and tournament officials are hosting some prospective sponsors this week, trying to persuade them to put their name on the tournament.

Volvik, which makes golf balls, is preparing to scale back its support of the tournament.

''We're coming back,'' said Don Shin, president of Volvik USA. ''We just don't know in what capacity.''

Getty Images

Wise: 'No hard feelings' over Nelson missed kiss

By Will GrayMay 23, 2018, 10:18 pm

Aaron Wise left the AT&T Byron Nelson with his first PGA Tour trophy and a seven-figure paycheck. But lost in the shuffle of closing out his breakthrough victory in near-darkness was his failed attempt for a celebratory kiss with his girlfriend on the 18th green.

Wise appeared to go in for a peck after his family joined him on the putting surface, but instead he and his girlfriend simply laughed and hugged. After the moment gained a bit of online notoriety, Wise told reporters at the Fort Worth Invitational that the young couple simply laughed it off.

"Yeah, I have been giving her some s--- about that," Wise said. "A lot has been made about it. It's really nothing. Like I was saying, she was just so excited to surprise me. I was kind of ruining the surprise a little bit that she was shocked, and she didn't even see me going in for the kiss."

At age 21, Wise is now one of the youngest winners on Tour. He explained that while both his girlfriend and mother flew in to watch the final round at Trinity Forest Golf Club, where he shared the 54-hole lead and eventually won by three shots, he took some of the surprise out of their arrival in true millennial fashion - by looking up his girlfriend's location earlier in the day.

Still getting used to his newfound status on Tour, Wise downplayed any controversy surrounding the kiss that wasn't.

"No hard feelings at all," Wise said. "We love each other a ton and we're great. It was a funny moment that I think we'll always be able to look back at, but that's all it really was."

Mmm Visuals / Lancaster Country Club

Giving back: Chun creates education fund at site of Open win

By Randall MellMay 23, 2018, 8:04 pm

South Korea’s In Gee Chun is investing in American youth.

Chun broke through on the largest stage in women’s golf, winning the U.S. Women’s Open three years ago, and she’s making sure Lancaster, Pa., continues to share in what that brought her.

Chun is preparing for next week’s U.S. Women’s Open at Shoal Creek outside Birmingham, Ala., but she made a special stop this week. She returned to the site of her breakthrough in Pennsylvania on Tuesday and Wednesday, launching the In Gee Chun Lancaster Country Club Education Fund. She announced Tuesday that she’s donating $10,000 to seed the fund. She’s expected to raise more than $20,000 for the cause in a fundraising dinner at the club Wednesday evening. The fund will annually award scholarships to Lancaster youth applicants, including Lancaster Country Club caddies and children of club employees.

“I’m excited to be back here,” said Chun, who put on a junior clinic during her stay and also played an outing with club members. “Winning the U.S. Women’s Open here in Lancaster gave me the opportunity to play on the LPGA and make one of my dreams come true.”

Chun also supports a fund in her name at Korea University, where she graduated, a fund for various “social responsibility” projects and for the educational needs of the youth who create them.

“Education is very important to me,” Chun said. “I would like to help others reach their goals.”

Chun made donations to the Lancaster General Health Foundation in 2015 and ’16 and to Pennsylvania’s J. Wood Platt Caddie Scholarship Trust last year. Lancaster Country Club officials estimate she has now made donations in excess of $40,000 to the community.

“We are grateful In Gee’s made such a wonderful connection to our community and club,” said Rory Connaughton, a member of Lancaster Country Club’s board of governors. “She’s a special person.”