'Little Pro' Eddie Merrins leaves a deep teaching legacy among tour pros and Hollywood stars
Eddie Merrins was one of the top teaching pros of his era.
Nicknamed the “Little Pro” because of his short stature, Eddie Merrins was a giant in the golf world.
For years, he moved seamlessly between teaching Hollywood stars such as Fred Astaire, Sean Connery, Jack Nicholson and Celine Dion as the head pro at Bel-Air Country Club to, as men’s golf coach at UCLA, mentoring an inordinate number of future professionals, including Corey Pavin, Duffy Waldorf, Scott McCarron and Steve Pate.
Merrins, distinguished in any crowd by his white driving hat and tie, did it all with a gentleman’s aplomb. On Wednesday, he died in Los Angeles after a long illness. Merrins was 91.
In a 2007 Golf Digest “My Shot” article, the 5-foot-7 Merrins said he was dubbed the “Little Pro” by a Long Island teaching pro, Jerry Pittman. “I like it,” Merrins said. “The thing is, when he gave me that nickname in the ’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.”
Born in 1932 in Meridian, Miss., Merrins started playing golf at the age of 11 and said he learned to shoot low scores at short-playing Northwood Country Club. “Fear of going low is a hard thing to overcome,” he said. “It’s best not to let fear take root.”
Merrins, who played in an exhibition match with Byron Nelson when he was 17 years old, went on to an accomplished amateur career, including winning two SEC titles while at LSU. He played in more than 200 events on the PGA Tour, including eight U.S. Opens and six PGA Championships, and Merrins once held the Medinah Country Club course record of 66 he shot in the 1962 Western Open. He was paired that round with Lloyd Mangrum and Ken Venturi, and the next year Mangrum also saw him shoot 66 at Bel-Air. “Until the day he died, [Mangrum] thought I was one of the best players he’d ever seen,” Merrins said. “He couldn’t understand why I wasn’t tearing the PGA Tour apart.”
In reality, Merrins knew he was ultimately better suited to be a teaching pro than a professional player. After stints in the East at Merion Golf Club, Westchester Country Club and Rockaway Hunting Club (his first head pro job), Merrins was named the head pro at Bel-Air in 1962 and taught hundreds of people, famous and otherwise, over the next five decades.
“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,” Merrins said. “But in teaching, you get the satisfaction of knowing that you’ve helped somebody.”
Arnold Palmer, winning amateur in the 1954 Tam O'Shanter All-American Golf Tournament, stands with runner-up Eddie Merrins.
He had many famous students from the acting and entertainment world and told Golf Digest, “They’re never satisfied with their games. … They’re perfectionists by nature.” He recounted James Bond himself, Connery, constantly checking his golf positions in the mirror; Nicholson was outwardly nonchalant, but desperately wanted to be good; ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov battled grip issues; and Dion was engrossed in Merrins’ “Swing the Handle” philosophy about which he published a book.
In 1975, Merrins accepted the head coaching job at UCLA, which is literally across Sunset Blvd. from Bel-Air. There, he attracted one talented player after another, eventually coaching 16 All-Americans. And in the watershed season of 1988, the Bruins, led by future tour pro Brandt Jobe, captured their first NCAA Championship, becoming the first West Coast team to take the title in 35 years.
At UCLA, Merrins also got close to one of the greatest coaches in any sport, John Wooden, and he recalled the basketball coach once giving the golf squad an 80-minute lecture, “and not once did he mention the word ‘winning.’ All he talked about was preparation,” Merrins said.
Merrins retired as Bel-Air’s head pro in 2003, but remained a fixture at Los Angeles golf events and could be seen talking to the modern PGA Tour pros on the range at the now-Genesis Invitational at Riviera Country Club.
The game was always on his mind, as Merrins recounted in his “My Shot.” Frustrated that his golf was deteriorating, the pro made an appointment to see a renowned L.A. ophthalmologist, Dr. Robert Hepler, who told him to bring a driver for the exam. Merrins thought it was odd that he’d need a golf club for 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.”
The “Little Pro” had cultivated yet another fan.