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?
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.