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My Shot: Eddie Merrins

Eddie Merrins

Eddie Merrins, photographed Oct. 30, 2006, in West Los Angeles, Calif.

Joey Terrill

January 2007
A cure for first-tee jitters, why the U.S. keeps losing the Ryder Cup, and other wisdom from the ultimate professional.

Age 74 • Club pro emeritus, Bel-Air C.C. • Los Angeles, California

It's Wednesday at the 2002 Masters, and I see Arnold Palmer on the practice range. Arnold waves me over and says, "Eddie, my swing feels short and tight. You got anything for me?" I watch Arnold for a bit, then tell him to swing the handle end of the club and keep the joints free. I just know this is the way to lengthen his arc, and sure enough, Arnold starts hitting some good shots. He's all excited and thanks me. The next day, in the first round, he shoots 89. That tip didn't work out so well. In fact, it might have prompted his early retirement from the Masters.

First-tee jitters are a real problem for people. Always have been, always will be. The best way to calm yourself a little--I say a little, because a little nervousness can work to your advantage--is to toss your golf ball a few inches in the air and catch it while you wait. Do it over and over. It's an amazing little trick, a form of hypnosis, really. Hypnosis is nothing but deep relaxation, and tossing the ball has a hypnotic, calming effect. Just the fact that you're able to catch the ball will give you enough subliminal confidence to get the ball down the fairway when it's your turn to play.

In my playing days on tourI played a lot of practice rounds with Jerry Pittman, a fine player who also was the head pro at the Creek club out on Long Island. Jerry began calling me The Little Pro, and it caught on. I like it. I'm only 5-7, and it's little wonder it stuck. The thing is, when he gave me the nickname in the late '50s, being 5-7 wasn't all that short. But it is by today's standard. And at 74 I'm getting shorter all the time.

As golfers, actors and entertainers are an interesting lot. They're never satisfied with their games, and after a round they're inclined to talk about all the shots they left out on the course. Fred Astaire was almost manic in his quest for more distance. Sean Connery constantly checks his positions in the mirror, which I never thought was helpful--I call it a "vanity check." Jack Nicholson gives the impression that he doesn't care how he plays, but he does. Hugh Grant became immersed in the concept of the swing being three-dimensional. Celine Dion wanted a full discourse on my "Swing the Handle" philosophy--and she wanted it in 10 minutes. Mikhail Baryshnikov fought mightily to improve his grip. Entertainers are perfectionists by nature. They have to be, I suppose.

I'll tell you why we're losing the Ryder Cup. Years ago John Wooden came by and gave my UCLA golf team a lecture. He spoke for an hour and 20 minutes, and not once did he mention the word "winning." All he talked about was preparation. European players look forward to making the Ryder Cup team more than anything, but once they're on the team, they don't talk about winning. They just show up and prepare, and when Friday morning comes they just play, usually over their heads. The U.S. team is obsessed with winning, about getting the Cup back. It's all the players talk about. Somehow they're focusing on the end result instead of what they need to do to win. It's distracting and adds to the pressure. Tom Lehman talked with Coach Wooden, but the team never realized that winning is a reward, not a goal.

Speaking of John Wooden, one of the most unusual things in golf is for a player to make two holes-in-one in a single round. It's been done; in fact, it was done by me. But John did something that's even more rare: He made a hole-in-one and a double eagle in the same round [in the late 1930s, at the Erskine course in South Bend, Ind.]. A double eagle is harder to make than a hole-in-one. The second shot on a par 5 is longer than the tee shot on most par 3s, and you don't have the benefit of using a tee. Many fine players go their whole lives without making one. Coach Wooden made an ace on the front nine, then tossed in the double eagle for good measure.

At La Costa a couple of years ago, Vijay Singh was looking for a tip to help his rhythm. I told him that if he chanted the word "set" as he brought the club to the end of the backswing, and the word "swing" through the ball, the length and duration of those words really marry well into the type of rhythm you're looking for. Well, Vijay had a great year. Won a bunch of tournaments, including the PGA Championship. At the end of the season I ran into Vijay at Tiger Woods' tournament and asked him if the tip had helped. He told me that it had, but that he had modified it a bit, that he made it all one word: "Seventeen." He said the word "seven" as he moved to the top, then "teen" as he exploded through the ball. To each his own. The important thing is, he began to think about his rhythm. And look what it did for him.

I have an unusual putting drill. I have my students put balls a few inches from the cup on the practice green. Then I have them reach across and tap the ball in. Now, when you barely miss a putt for par or birdie, the reaction is to just reach across the hole and knock the ball in. You do it with such certainty and conviction, and invariably you hit the ball very solidly with those carefree swipes. That's how you should hit every putt--with the feeling that it's as easy as can be. Try my tap-in drill. It's sure to remove some of the anxiety from your putting. The thought of missing never enters the mind. It's a great feeling--the feel of "making"--and you want to treat all putts with the same conviction.

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