January 4, 2010

My Shot: Eddie Merrins

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

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

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.

There are three ways to putt. You can stroke it smoothly, in the style of Ben Crenshaw and Phil Mickelson. You can hit it somewhat abruptly, like Gary Player and Arnold Palmer. Or you can roll it with a firm stroke, which is how I'd classify Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. Regardless of how you choose to do it--it's a choice, and I'm not about to change your putting personality--you must roll the ball. You must make the ball come off the clubface rolling smoothly. There is no compromising on that. When you practice, work on making the ball roll better. That's what matters. That's what will get you holing more putts.

Hitting up through the ball is fatal with the irons, of course, but it's a mistake with the driver, too. The urge to hit up is so powerful, many golfers do it even when they consciously try not to. It's the most common mistake in golf. Now, have you ever stood on the tee waiting your turn to play, and you swipe at a cigarette butt, broken tee or something else just lying there? You have to swing level to hit it, right? Well, that's how you want to hit your driver. Try to knock the tee over with your swing. Just knock it out of the ground. This is how you hit the ball solidly and find the distance and accuracy you've been looking for.

My pet peeve in golf is an unusual one: I can't stand the sight of telephone poles. They're such a common sight everywhere you go that many people don't even notice them, but I'm cursed with noticing and disliking every one of them. They're a blight on the American landscape, yet to some people they're invisible. They'll complain about an artificial waterfall but make no mention of this huge, ugly telephone pole within 30 yards of where they're standing. I don't get it. If I ever designed a golf course, the first thing I'd do is bury every telephone wire within a mile of the property.

I grew up playing at the Northwood Country Club in Meridian, Miss. From the time I was 11 until I finished high school, I rarely missed a day going there. Northwood was a short course, and I learned to shoot low there. That experience made me a big believer in encouraging kids to play from the forward tees or even closer. Let them get used to shooting low scores; it will make them less fearful of shooting low when they get older. Fear of going low is a hard thing to overcome. It's best not to let that fear take root.

When I became the men's golf coach at UCLA in 1975, one of the first things I noticed was the way a lot of coaches told their players to leave the driver in the bag on short, tight holes. I instinctively knew that was the wrong thing to do with a player at the developmental level. When you get a player like Duffy Waldorf, who is a long, straight, fearless driver of the ball, you don't want to disrupt that. If I told Duffy to reach for his 1-iron, it would insinuate that he can't drive the ball very well after all. It's like giving Samson a haircut. When we won the NCAA Championship in 1988, the golf course was very tight, and the other teams predictably hit irons off the tees all the way around. We hit a lot of drivers and had a huge tactical advantage.

At UCLA it was important for our players to have access to the best courses in the Los Angeles area. When we were extended the privilege, it was important that we show our appreciation. So I had our players carry little bags of sand around with them and fill divots as they went. These bags were quite visible, so the members could see them. I also had each player repair five ball marks every time he walked onto a green. [Corey] Pavin, [Tom] Pernice, Waldorf, [Scott] McCarron, [Brandt] Jobe, [Steve] Pate, [Jay] Delsing--they all filled a lot of divots. The practice was good for our players, surprised and delighted the members, and it surely was good for the golf courses. If you know of high school or college golf teams looking for a welcome sign at the nicer clubs in town, this is one way they'll find it.

Jerry West [NBA Hall of Famer] is a long-time member at Bel-Air and a wonderful player. Jerry at one time was a plus-2 handicapper and once shot 28 on the back nine, six under par. It remains the only time a member has broken 30 on the back nine, and for the day he shot 65. When Jerry retired as a player at age 35, he had plenty of time to develop into an outstanding amateur golfer. I truly feel he could have played at the highest level. But Jerry has too much pride. I don't think he was willing to put himself in a position where he might shoot a high score and become embarrassed. The lesson is, there is no other way but to put your feet in the fire. You just have to play your way through those tough experiences early on, however humiliating they might be. It's hard for the perfectionist or the self-conscious person to do.

I played in eight U.S. Opens, six PGA Championships and a number of PGA Tour events. I wasn't a great champion by any measure, but I tried hard, I enjoyed it, and I did make a living. For a time I held the course record at Medinah. I shot 66 there in the 1962 Western Open. I was paired with Lloyd Mangrum and Ken Venturi that day. A year later, I was paired with Lloyd again, this time at Bel-Air, and I shot 66. Lloyd saw two of the best rounds of my life. Until the day he died, he thought I was one of the best players he'd ever seen. He couldn't understand why I wasn't tearing the PGA Tour apart.

In the old days tournament officials had what they called "hot dog" pairings. Not wanting to see the gallery get too bunched up, they would sandwich ordinary players between star pairings. In the 1957 U.S. Open at Inverness, the pairings had Ben Hogan in front of me and Jimmy Demaret behind me, but Ben had to withdraw. In the 1966 Open at Olympic I had Hogan, Venturi and Frank Beard behind me, and another great player--I can't remember who--in front of me. When tournament committees looked at Eddie Merrins, I guess they saw a hot dog. Galleryites would see my pairing between the greats and say to themselves, Let's go get a hot dog.

Everybody from my generation smoked. From the age of 18 to 27 I smoked constantly, at one point getting up to two packs a day. Serious cigarettes, too. Non-filters: Chesterfields, Lucky Strikes, Camels and Picayunes. Smoking those things like I did just made me feel horrible. Quitting was an odd experience. On one hand I was addicted to the nicotine and craved a smoke. On the other hand I felt so much better almost immediately that quitting was a pleasure. Some people say it's hell quitting tobacco, but I actually savored the experience.

In this country there are 30 million people I refer to as Golfers. Some qualify as Players--they're the ones with certified handicaps, who compete a little bit. Then there are Winners, the ones who have attained success and have a record of accomplishment. Finally there are Champions, the very rarest class of all. It's the Champions who have a drive not to just excel. They possess an insatiable hunger to be the very best. They're not satisfied by anything except first place. There have been roughly 20 champions in all of history, and right now there is only one: Tiger Woods. The guys chasing him are merely Winners, every last one of them. They're very good at what they do, but they're not Champions, unless they knock him off his perch.

The tributes to Byron Nelson after his passing were fitting and accurate. Byron was truly a wonderful person, and yes, he did win 11 tournaments in a row in 1945. But nothing you can write about Byron can replace the experience of actually seeing him hit a golf ball. I played in an exhibition with Byron in 1950, when I was 17 years old. It was a thrilling day, but what has stayed with me all these years was the character of his ball flight. Byron hit the ball dead straight every time. Every player, be it Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus or Ben Hogan, chooses a slight draw or fade as a natural ball flight, because it's easier to play golf that way. Hitting the ball dead straight intentionally is just about impossible for a golfer to do consistently, but Byron did it.

Jack has often talked about an experience not unlike my own, in which Byron put on a clinic the week of the 1956 U.S. Junior. Jack recalls how Byron hit 35 shots that covered the gamut of shotmaking--high, low, draws, fades, you name it--and how every shot came off precisely how Byron said it would. The disconcerting thing about the exhibition Jack saw was, Byron was retired by then. He was just fooling around.

So many great rivals in sports become very good friends after they retire. That never happened with Byron and Ben Hogan, and nobody knows for sure why. Here they grew up in the same town, caddied at the same club and shared so many similar experiences. They both knew a thousand of the same people. And they were friends starting out! Whatever occurred between them must have been serious, because at Ben's funeral, I was surprised to hear that Ben's wife, Valerie, could not call Byron to be a pallbearer because Ben didn't keep Byron's phone number. Byron simply came to the funeral and paid his respects, then left. Traveling in different social circles had caused these two greats to be so close yet so far.

During a presentation for Byron Nelson at the 1995 PGA Merchandise Show, Sam Snead spoke for a long time about his and Byron's years playing the tour. He spun a lot of stories and concluded by saying that, although Byron's winning 11 straight tournaments in 1945 was a tremendous accomplishment, it was he, Sam, who actually had more fun over the years. When Byron got up to speak, he started by acknowledging Sam's wonderful playing record and his great golf game. But he then added, a little pointedly, "Sam, if you don't think winning 18 tournaments in 1945 was fun, what do you think it was?"

Instructors have always been absorbed with the full swing, the short game and the putting stroke. That's fine, but the last great vista will be on playing the game. At a presentation in 1999, I asked 80 club professionals to respond in writing to the question, "What is playing the game?" I got 80 different answers. I think teaching people how to get around the golf course is the last frontier in teaching. Strategy, club selection and course management are part of that, but there's so much more. It's about managing yourself and your score. It's about the way we regard par, how well we control our aggressiveness, the way we handle the ebb and flow of an 18-hole round. There are hundreds--no, thousands--of players these days who are roughly the same in terms of hitting the ball. Obviously the difference lies somewhere out there, on the course.

The golf swing has three dimensions. It's "high," it's "wide" and it's also "deep and around." Nobody thinks in terms of all three. Take Tiger Woods. His first teachers, Rudy Duran and John Anselmo, ingrained the importance of being "high," which is why Tiger's early swing was quite upright. Butch Harmon stressed the "wide" part and gave his swing nice width while making it less upright. Now Hank Haney has impressed the importance of "around," which is even less upright than where Butch had him. The time is ripe, I believe, for Tiger to start thinking in terms of all three, of incorporating these three elements equally into his technique. When that happens, the days of Tiger winning eight of 15 events he enters will be over. He'll win more along the lines of 12. And the three he doesn't win will be an accident.

Every great golfer I've known has had powerful forearms. You can't play the game at the highest level without them. Tiger has terrific forearms. Nicklaus' were tremendous. The best I saw belonged to Doug Sanders. He was just a medium-length hitter, but his backswing was extremely short, and it was incredible how much speed he generated with his forearms--the right forearm in particular. When he flexed that thing, it was like touching granite. The good news is, you can develop them. Squeezing and relaxing the steering wheel while you drive will help. So will squeezing a rubber ball while you watch TV. Strong forearms can take you a long way in this game.

Very rarely do you see a golfer whose swing isn't predicated on some aspect of their physique. There are players with large hands, players with strong legs or broad shoulders, long-armed players and players with strong trunks. They quite naturally take advantage of the best part of the anatomy. I've seen only one golfer who used every part of his body: Ben Hogan. Every part of Ben's body contributed equally to his swing. Now, Ben had a fast tempo to his swing, and there are players whose swings might have appeared to be more fluid. But from head to toe, Ben's swing had the most balance. It's why all the good players loved to watch him. He didn't waste anything. Every part of his body played a role--an equal role--in his swing.

I just wrote a book, Playing a Round With the Little Pro, and in it I say that you don't want to think about your score while you play. You have no idea what you're going to shoot before you tee off, so what good does it do to worry about it before you finish? That was Greg Norman's big downfall. Had he gone out and related to Old Man Par in the final round of the '96 Masters, there's no way Nick Faldo would have overcome that six-stroke deficit and beaten Greg so handily. Greg's obsession with winning got in the way of his playing. Relate to par--the winning will come.

Never think of your left arm as "straight" during the swing. The arm is designed to extend naturally during the swing, just as a boxer's arm straightens when he throws a jab. The arm can't lengthen if it starts out straight and tense. The "straight left arm" is a myth that will only take the athleticism out of your swing.

All a teacher can do is help the player help himself. All I ask for is a student who truly wants to learn. Give me that, and in short order a better player will begin to emerge. The desire to learn is everything.

The most important change in golf over the last 35 years has been for the better. When I was a boy traveling to junior tournaments, I couldn't help but notice the looks many men gave me as I walked through the train and bus stations with my golf bag on my shoulder. It was a contemptible look, one that conveyed the feeling that golf was a sissy game and I was a sissy for playing it. In those days, real athletes played baseball and football. Blue-collar men regarded golf as a game for the shy and weak. This continued, I think, up through the mid-1970s, which is fairly recent when you stop and think about it. It's a good feeling now, knowing we golfers were right about our sport all along.

Fiscal conservativeness is almost a prerequisite for working for the U.S. Golf Association. The story goes that Bill Campbell, when he was serving as USGA president, was invited to play at Augusta National. On the first tee, he walked over and began swishing his ball in the ball washer. The member he was with remarked, "Bill, that ball washer has been there for as long as I can remember, and you're the first man I've ever seen use it." Now, I'm not saying USGA people are cheap. Far from it. But if they visit your course, there's a good chance your ball washers are going to get a workout. They feel a golf ball is built for mileage and not distance.

About 10 years ago my golf game had fallen into a state of disrepair, and I was determined to get to the bottom of what was wrong. Feeling my hand-eye coordination was at fault, I sought out the best ophthalmologist I could find, Dr. Robert Hepler. After a consultation, he wrote me a letter explaining he would conduct a thorough examination. He wrote that I should bring a driver to the appointment, and I thought that was so insightful--he didn't ask me to bring a putter or a 5-iron, he wanted me to bring the driver, which tends to reveal the slightest flaws in your swing.

On the day of the appointment, I got a brand-new driver out of the shop at Bel-Air. My wife, Lisa, and I drove to Dr. Hepler's office, and as I waited to see him, I noticed the stares of the other patients. How strange it must have seemed to them, my bringing a golf club to an eye appointment!

When Dr. Hepler saw me and the club, he started laughing. "No," he said, "I meant for you to bring a driver so you would have a ride home after the appointment." The story got around fast, and I became the laughingstock of the community. Dr. Hepler was a big help--he mounted the driver on his office wall. Like a big fish.