LOS ANGELES — LOS ANGELES (AP) — Eddie Merrins was nicknamed “the little pro” because of his 5-foot-7 stature, and certainly not for his influence on golf. The longtime Bel-Air Country Club pro has touched everyone from U.S. Open champion Corey Pavin to Fred Astaire and even Mikhail Baryshnikov.
Merrins died Wednesday in Los Angeles at the age of 91 after a long illness, according to UCLA, where he coached for 14 years.
“Golf is a very selfish game in the sense that you are the only one who gets any real pleasure from what you do,” Merrins once said. “But in teaching, you have the satisfaction of knowing that you have helped someone.”
Merrins could definitely play. He played 82 times on the PGA Tour, but never more than 10 tournaments a year. He has qualified for the US Open eight times and the PGA Championship six times. He formerly held the course record at Medinah (66) at the Western Open.
But his passion was teaching and his goal was to keep it simple. He wrote an instruction manual in 1973 called “Swing the handle, not the clubhead.”
In a series of observations for Golf Digest in 2010, Merrins recalled seeing Arnold Palmer on the eve of the 2002 Masters. Palmer called him and told him his swing seemed short and tight, and asked what Merrins could offer.
“I look at Arnold for a bit, then tell him to swing the end of the club shaft and keep the knuckles free. I just know that’s the way to extend his arc, and sure enough, Arnold starts hitting some good shots,” Merrins said. “He is very excited and thanks me. The next day, in the first round, he shot 89. This trick didn’t work very well. In fact, it could have caused him to withdraw early from the Masters.
Merrins was born in Meridian, Mississippi, and won the SEC title twice while playing for LSU. He started as a professional teacher, serving as director of the Rockaway Hunting Club before landing in 1962 in Bel-Air, where he spent the better part of five decades.
He worked two jobs for a time: Bel-Air and coaching the UCLA golf team from 1975 to 1989, during which time the Bruins won an NCAA title in 1988. Among those who Playing for him included Pavin, Duffy Waldorf, Steve Pate and Brandt Jobe.
The nickname comes from his playing career on the PGA Tour. Merrins told Golf Digest that he often plays practice rounds with Jerry Pittman, the head professional at a course on Long Island.
“Jerry started calling me The Little Pro, and it caught on,” he once wrote. “I like it. I’m only 5-7 years old, and it’s no wonder it stuck. The thing is, when he gave me that nickname in the late 50s, having 5-7 years wasn’t that short. But that’s by today’s standards. And at 74, I’m getting shorter and shorter.
He was easy to identify, more by his jacket and white driving cap than by his height. And he was fully invested in golf in Los Angeles. Merrins started the Friends of Collegiate Golf in 1979 to support junior golf, and it became known as the Friends of Golf. It raised more than $10 million for juniors across the country.
He was a popular figure when golf first came to Los Angeles, whether through the PGA Tour or USGA Championships. His life was centered around golf, and even his own game.
In the article “My Shot” for Golf Digest in 2010, Merrins talked about his frustration with his game and wondered if it had to do with his deteriorating hand-eye coordination. So he made an appointment with an ophthalmologist for tests.
The doctor, Robert Hepler, told him to make sure to bring a driver, which Merrins found strange.
“When Dr. Hepler saw me and the club, he started laughing,” Merrins wrote. “‘No,’ he said, ‘I wanted you to bring a driver so you could go home after the appointment.’ The story quickly spread and I became the laughing stock of the community.
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