Little Big Man: The Legend & Legacy of Eddie Merrins 1932-2023
NOTE FROM THE SCGA: Eddie Merrins, a member of the SoCal Golf Hall of Fame and legendary golf professional, passed away last November at the age of 91. Merrins, a revered longtime teacher of the game, made a tremendous decades-long impact across golf that will continue to live on through the people he’s touched and his founding of Friends of Golf. The following piece appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of FORE Magazine, and we are honored to re-run it as a small tribute to the giant man affectionately known as “Lil’ Pro.”
Adjacent to Bel-Air CC’s Swinging Bridge that connects the first tee box to the fairway, is a plaque that reads:
The Swinging Bridge
Dedicated to Eddie Merrins
The Lil’ Pro
Head Professional 1962 – 2003
August 20, 2015
With that dedication, the bridge stands as more than a piece of Southern California golf lore, but also a symbol for the man whose name now bears its entry, a link between the game’s past and present. In this light, Merrins is not merely SoCal golf’s greatest ambassador; he’s among the most respected and admired individuals in the history of the game.
SWING THE HANDLE
Prior to his four-decade run as Bel-Air’s head pro, Mississippi-born Merrins enjoyed a stellar amateur playing career that saw him rise from a high school state champion in 1948 to a Jaycee National Junior Champion two years later to an eventual NCAA Championship individual runner-up finish in 1952.
A commission as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force would follow before Merrins endeavored upon a pro playing career which would ultimately include more than 200 PGA TOUR events.
Concurrently, Merrins would discover his life’s true calling as a teacher of the game. Honing his swing theories as an assistant pro at Merion GC in Philadelphia from 1957-59 and at Thunderbird CC from 1959-60, Merrins would take his first head professional job at Rockaway Hunting Club in 1960.
“I was a good player, but I think I’ve accomplished much more as a teacher and perhaps a coach than I did as a player,” Merrins reflects. “The game of golf is a very selfish game in the sense that you’re the only one who gets any real enjoyment out of what you do. But in teaching, you get the satisfaction of knowing that you’ve helped somebody.”
Said help may be most evident in his 1973 book, Swing the Handle, Not the Clubhead, which was an answer to Ernest Jones’ long-lauded Swing the Clubhead instructional book from the late 1930s.
“The comparison that I make is a tennis stroke,” Merrins says of his base swing beliefs. “You pick up a racket, you hold it at the handle and you use your forearms to swing the shaft of the racket. You do not swing the head of the racket; you do swing the shaft of the racket. And, indirectly, you’re swinging the head. Well, eureka, that’s the golf swing.”
Merrins further struck gold (and true blue) as head coach of UCLA men’s golf team from 1975-1989, a tenure which included the development of 16 All-Americans, seven future PGA TOUR players (Corey Pavin, Duffy Waldorf and Steve Pate among them) and capture of the 1988 NCAA National Championship.
Nearly six decades of instruction have taught lessons to the teacher as well.
“My teaching has been a constant evolution, but an evolution toward simplicity,” he says. “It’s a pretty simple game and a pretty simple swing that we go to great lengths to complicate.”
THE GIFT OF GIVING
Simplicity, or at least a lack of pretension, defines 83-year-old Eddie Merrins as much as his trademark flat cap. Despite being surrounded by a world of affluence for 60 years, despite being a member of 11 Halls of Fame (yes, that’s 11, and includes the SCGA’s), what may be most notable about The Lil’ Pro is how completely unaffected he appears by the tinsel of success.
“I wouldn’t trade my life and my way of life for anybody I’ve known, millionaires and billionaires included,” he says. “They haven’t enjoyed the life that I’ve lived. My life has been what it’s been because I gave, I tried to give.”
Along with his college-turned-pro standouts, Merrins has worked with professionals Amy Alcott (a fellow member of the SCGA Hall of Fame), Raymond Floyd, Hale Irwin, Tom Kite and Vijay Singh.
Oh, and Merrins’ teaching resume includes just a few folks from the worlds of sport and entertainment. Actors, singers, dancers, musicians and jocks the likes of Marcus Allen, Fred Astaire, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Sean Connery, Jimmy Connors, Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, Jack Nicholson, Jerry Rice and Ringo Starr all worked with The Lil’ Pro over the years.
In 1978, while coaching at UCLA, Merrins and Bruins’ alumnus/philanthropist John Anderson founded the Friends of Golf (FOG) organization in an effort to, initially, raise funds for the university’s golf program.
In the years since, buoyed by FOG’s annual charity tournament at Bel-Air, the entity has gone on to raise more than $6 million to benefit college, high school, junior and youth golf programs.
Advancing in years, does Merrins want his legacy to exist in the form of awards, championships or famous friends?
“I’d like my tombstone to read, ‘He Gave’,” Merrins says without pause.