Little Big Man: The Legend & Legacy of Eddie Merrins
A late summer humidity hangs across an otherwise idyllic August day at Bel-Air CC. It’s the 21st annual playing of The Lil’ Pro Member-Guest Tournament and players stride to the 10th tee with reverence, their continual chain of hands extended to the club’s Pro Emeritus, Eddie Merrins.
Merrins’ ubiquitous tie and white cap seemingly serving as a shield against the moisture rather than an irritant, and the legend’s ready smile has a way of softening the midday sun.
Adjacent to the event’s namesake host, Bel-Air’s Swinging Bridge connects the tee box to the fairway over a chasm on this short par-4, the design element from George C. Thomas aptly considered a treasure of golf’s Golden Age of architecture. Earlier in the day, in a surprise to the recipient, the bridge was graced with a new plaque which reads:
The Swinging Bride
Dedicated to Eddie Merrins
The Lil’ Pro
Head Professional 1962 – 2003
August 20, 2015
With that dedication, the bridge now 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
Merrins’ small office in the clubhouse is a piled-high account of living history. His cap placed upon the desk, Merrins eyes with polite pride the cache of medals, plaques awards and accolades.
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 swing 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.
“There are different styles of teaching,” he says. “You can teach with the written word, which I do a lot of. You can teach with still pictures. You can teach with moving pictures. You can teach by example. To me, the hallmark of my own teaching is word-pictures. A word-picture lodges in the brain as the mental computer, and it stays there.”
Nearly six decades of instruction has 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 FOUR PARTS OF SUCCESS
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 Little Pro is how completely unaffected he appears by the tinsel of success.
“Making a lot of money was never pleasing to me and didn’t impress me at all. You’ve got to have enough money to exist and pay your bills,” he says. “I’ve never been involved in the stock market or reading the financial page. A lot of people like that, but it just never impressed me.”
His manner is that of the Southern gentleman, his projection easy and learned.
“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, Mikael Baryshnikov, Sean Connery, Jimmy Connors, Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, Jack Nicholson, Jerry Rice and Ringo Starr have all worked with The Little Pro over the years.
For which student does Merrins hold the soft spot in his heart? That would be Lynwood, Calif.-born Bob May.
“He had a sparkle in his eye that led me to believe that this boy was very competitive,” says Merrins of May, with whom he began working when the 2000 PGA Championship runner-up was 11 years old. “He had the right stuff.”
To hear Eddie Merrins talk about the modern pro game is as relevant as revisiting his vast memories. He still travels to major championships and still teaches four hours a day, and his impression of what makes a complete player seems a portrait of the American game’s brightest star.
“A championship golfer is a four-part make-up,” Merrins details. “He or she is partly technical, dealing with the swing and ability to hit shots and play the game; partly physical well-being and all the habits that go with it; partly mental, dealing with all the mental ramifications like temperament and motivation; and then there’s the spiritual part, and that comes from association, education, religion and philosophy that breeds character within.”
It comes with little surprise that Jordan Spieth has caught Merrins’ eye.
“I’ve developed a bit of a relationship with Jordan Spieth, whom I met at Augusta this past year,” Merrins says. “He has the right stuff, he has the character elements within. He’s the new face of the game and it’s a healthy face. Tiger could have been that, but it didn’t turn out to be a healthy face. And Tiger is still trying to find himself; he’s fouled-up, mentally, physically, technically…and maybe even spiritually.”
THE GIFT OF GIVING
Surrounded by fame, fortune and great players, Merrins’ best “Friend” in golf may well be a collection of players that will never grace a silver screen or ever earn a dollar playing the game.
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.
Late afternoon graduates to early evening and, soon, the event’s on-course revelry will extend to a night of rabid roasting.
Eddie Merrins stands and looks about this familiar space, the leviathan collection of accomplishment belying his diminutive frame. He exhales softly, perhaps in preparation for the ceremonial ribbing to come or, maybe, in reflection that a kid from Meridian, Miss., could have amassed a life such as this.
Merrins departs the office toward the day’s setting sun and though on this night he will receive, the Little Pro will undoubtedly give a little bit more.
Upon the desk rests his signature cap. White as snow, it’s a living symbol of an unchanged man ceaselessly striving to exhibit the purest aims and intentions of the Gentleman’s Game.