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Playing a Round with the Little Pro: A Life in the Game

Playing a Round with the Little Pro: A Life in the Game

by Eddie Merrins

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In the world of professional golf, everyone knows "the Little Pro" -- Eddie Merrins, the head professional at the Bel-Air Country Club. A living bridge between the Golden Age of the sport and the greatest champions of today, his experiences and friendships reach back to Bobby Jones, Sam Snead, and Ben Hogan, and all the way forward to Tiger Woods, Amy Alcott, and


In the world of professional golf, everyone knows "the Little Pro" -- Eddie Merrins, the head professional at the Bel-Air Country Club. A living bridge between the Golden Age of the sport and the greatest champions of today, his experiences and friendships reach back to Bobby Jones, Sam Snead, and Ben Hogan, and all the way forward to Tiger Woods, Amy Alcott, and Vijay Singh. Both on and off the course, he's an embodiment of the highest principles of the game.

In dozens of short, personal anecdotes told with his trademark wit and modesty, Merrins invites readers to share the decades he spent in the very good company of famous Hollywood stars, celebrated athletes and coaches, and countless lovers of the game seeking his advice and encouragement. In these pages, Merrins generously offers for the first time all his insights on the mental, physical, technical, and even spiritual aspects of the sport. Ranging from swing fundamentals to setting goals to shotmaking, this advice is relevant to players at every level of experience.

Playing a Round with the Little Pro celebrates a wonderful life lived in and for the great sport of golf, and it is destined, like its author, to be a classic of the game.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Eddie Merrins will go down in history as one of the best men in golf, and one of its best teachers."

— Byron Nelson

"This book is entertaining, amusing and a well-deserved tribute to one of golf's true gentlemen."

The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)

"The best golf book that I have ever read when it comes to the combination of instruction and storytelling....You feel like you have had the great privilege of receiving an all-afternoon lesson with the Little Pro."

— Jim Nantz

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A Dawning

One glorious August morning in 1976, the sun was rising over an awakening Los Angeles with its beautiful rays sparkling off the dew on our first holes at Bel-Air. The fairways were roped and defined, the rough was tidy, the bunkers and greens were inviting. Our course was ready to host the seventy-sixth U.S. Amateur Championship in the bicentennial-year celebration of our country. As I soaked in the realization of this moment in my early morning solitude, a few tears of joy and appreciation appeared with the realization that I was part of this scene. Let me share my story.

I think I'm the luckiest man on the face of the earth. My life in golf has been nothing short of magical. I have turned a boyhood passion into a lifelong dream come true. I have played golf with Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Gene Sarazen, and Byron Nelson. I played alongside Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. I arranged for Nicklaus and fifteen-year-old Tiger Woods to meet for the first time. I count them, as well as many others, among my friends.

I came to Bel-Air Country Club in 1962 as the head golf professional and I have kept regular hours there ever since. In almost fifty years of teaching, since 1957, I've given more than forty thousand golf lessons, from celebrities to PGA Tour players to rank beginners and everything in between.

And I've done most of it at one of the best clubs in the world. The head golf professional's job at Bel-Air is one of the most prestigious there is in our profession. Of course, any job is what you make it, but the people of Bel-Air have treated my family and me like, well . . . family. The thing I respect most about the membership here is that I have been allowed to grow with my family with dignity. We have enjoyed the privileges of this club, and our guests can come here and be treated royally. The members here consider me more than just an employee -- not many people in my profession can say that.

When I quit playing the PGA Tour full-time in 1962, my life changed. It became a life of service. For the past couple of years, I have come out of the golf shop and am now the pro emeritus at Bel-Air. You can either be put out to pasture in such a position or you can take the opportunity to do things that might be more important than anything you've done before.

Giving back to the game is what I enjoy doing. If I don't play another round of golf, I will have played enough golf. I'd be satisfied about that. But I'd like to teach until I drop because I feel as though I'm helping someone to help himself. It's not like you're coming up with a cure for cancer, but you are helping your fellow man. Millions of people play this game, and they want to play better. I can help them do that.

We live in a world that's full of stress and turmoil, but if there's something I can do to help people temporarily forget about those troubles and enjoy themselves, then I've done something worthwhile.

The key, of course, is giving unconditionally. I've always been taught that if you give something away, it comes back tenfold. It's amazing how that is the case as long as you give with no strings attached. It comes back in ways you never expect.

During my time at Bel-Air, I have taught celebrities, famous coaches, and athletes what I know about the golf swing. Along the way, I have reached millions of other golfers through magazine articles, my book Swing the Handle, and my video series of the same name.

In this book, you will learn about my teaching philosophy and my life experiences that helped shape me as a player, a teacher, and a person, and you will meet some of the people I've known who have made my life all the richer. No one is more fortunate -- or more grateful -- than I am.

Bing and the Snake

I don't know of many people who loved the game of golf and everything that went with it more than Bing Crosby did. What's more, he gave back to the game ten times -- maybe more -- what he received from it. His legacy lives on at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, one of the best-known tournaments in the world and one that carried his name from the beginning.

Bing played most of his golf at Lakeside, Cypress Point, Burlingame, and Bel-Air. You could tell Bing was coming by the trail of pipe smoke that preceded him. He was quite an accomplished player, having once played in the British Amateur.

When he played at Bel-Air, he had a regular caddie -- a man named Arnold who was called "Snake." Snake was a self-promoter, always looking for a deal from one of the members or the other caddies that would directly benefit him. He had a standing arrangement with Crosby whereby if Bing scored under par, he would buy Snake a new suit.

One summer day, Bing -- with quite an assist from Snake -- shot a 1-under-par 69. Leaving the eighteenth green and walking through the tunnel to the elevator beneath the Bel-Air clubhouse, Snake proposed a deal, probably because he had all the suits he needed and was looking for something this day that spent a little easier.

"Bing, if it's just the same to you," Snake said, "I'll take cash today because my tailor is on vacation."

When Crosby died in 1977 near Madrid, he, who was the master at stage presence, could not have orchestrated his final act better. He had just finished his round of golf at a local course, and he and the club professional eked out a 1-up victory over two others. They were en route from the eighteenth green to celebrate in the clubhouse when Bing collapsed and died.

Along the way, during the last round of his life, Bing sang his last song, when he encountered a group of Spanish golf course workers in midround. They were having their lunch in the shade of the twelfth hole. He joined them for a chorus of "Spanish Eyes." We should all take our final bow that way.

Tiger Woods

We had little idea in April 1991 that a meeting between a high schooler and the greatest player who ever lived would serve as a symbolic passing of the baton from one golf generation to the next. Tiger Woods met Jack Nicklaus for the first time at our Friends of Golf outing at Bel-Air, but it wasn't until sometime later that those in attendance realized what a historic occasion they had witnessed.

Nicklaus had agreed to be the Friends of Golf honoree that year, and Byron Nelson was on hand to lend further greatness to the occasion. Dinah Shore, our "First Lady of FOG," was also in attendance.

On the Sunday before the Monday event, Nicklaus flew by helicopter from his office in Columbus, Ohio, to Dayton to the site of one of his new courses. On the return flight, they encountered fog and had to set down in a farmer's field. The friendly farmer came to the aid of his newfound guests and was excited to learn that Jack Nicklaus had come to visit. After all, how often does the world's greatest golfer come to call?

The farmer took his guests to the house and proudly introduced them to his less-than-impressed wife. "I thought you had brought someone famous," she deadpanned. "Like [Indy car driver] Bobby Rahal." With ego intact, Nicklaus made his way back to Columbus and successfully arrived at Bel-Air the following morning.

We had invited a young man named Phil Mickelson to represent college and amateur golf. At the time, he was the NCAA champion and the U.S. Amateur champion. Bel-Air member Terry Jastrow, who was the ABC director responsible for U.S. Open golf coverage for twenty years, brought a film crew. He saw an opportunity to record the changing of the guard with Nicklaus and Mickelson in attendance at the same prestigious event.

At the last minute, however, Mickelson was forced to cancel his appearance, which left a high school student from nearby Cypress named Eldrick "Tiger" Woods to find himself front and center with the great Nicklaus. Young Tiger, accompanied by his father, Earl, had been invited to represent high school and junior golf. He was fifteen at the time and his junior golf career was just beginning to blossom. Little did we know at the time that this was the "Bear Apparent."

During the golf clinic that preceded the afternoon of golf, Tiger was the first onstage as Jastrow's crew was busy recording the moment for posterity on videotape. I asked him to hit some 3-iron shots and explain to the gathering the cause and effect of the beautiful shots they were seeing. I realize that asking a youngster to hit 3-irons in front of a crowd that included Jack Nicklaus and Byron Nelson was a bit daunting, but Tiger handled the request with a manner beyond his years. Not to mention that he hit every 3-iron shot right in the center of the clubface.

Steve Pate and Duffy Waldorf, two of my former UCLA players, did a fade-and-draw midair crisscross before they turned the stage over to Nicklaus. It takes a lot to impress Jack, so this next comment was well measured. "Tiger," he said, "you might win as many Masters as Arnold [Palmer] and I combined." And this was after seeing Tiger for the first time.

Nicklaus played nine holes that afternoon, and except for one pushed tee shot out of bounds on the ninth hole when Jastrow tempted him to try to drive the par-4 green, he was still hitting every shot perfectly like the Nicklaus of old, even at age fifty-one.

Tiger was paired that day with Dinah Shore, along with Bel-Air members John Marin and Jim Middleton with Arco President Lod Cook. At the par-5 fourteenth hole, playing 565 yards from the regular tee, the fifteen-year-old Woods hit the green with his 3-iron second shot. I guess that 3-iron warm-up at the clinic paid off.

This day belonged to us all because the two players who might be recorded as the greatest of all time had the opportunity to get to know one another for the first time. Each was duly impressed.

At the conclusion of the evening's FOG festivities, young Tiger sought out my wife and me and politely thanked us for having invited him to the occasion. Lisa smiled and said, "Now, Tiger, did your mom and dad have you say that?"

"Yes, Mrs. Merrins," he admitted with a grin.

Quizzed by the Bear

On the eve of the 1978 British Open, I was standing on the practice tee at St. Andrews, working and chatting with Tom Kite. At that moment, over sidled the great Jack Nicklaus. And he looked straight at me.

"You believe in swinging the handle, don't you?" he asked.

"Well, yes I do," I replied, wondering what he had in mind.

"Explain that to me," Nicklaus said.

One of golf's four major championships is about to commence in less than twenty-four hours and the greatest player ever to have played the game is asking me to explain my teaching philosophy. What was I going to say?

Out of the blue, I remembered that Nicklaus liked to play tennis. "Swing the handle is simply a two-armed tennis stroke," I told him. "That's the best analogy I know. Both forearms combine to swing the handle of the racket from one side of your body to the other. You do the same thing when you make a good golf swing."

Nicklaus thought about it for a minute, then went back to his spot on the practice tee and continued to hit his pile of balls. Now, I don't know what he might have thought about what I said, for he has not asked me about it since. But I do know that he won that British Open. I have no idea if anything I said made a sliver of difference, but I liked the fact that the holder of eighteen major championships was still curious as to whether there is a better, simpler, easier way to swing a golf club.

I happen to think the entire philosophy of the golf swing is embodied in "Swing the Handle." When I was an assistant at Merion in the 1950s, I really didn't care about how to swing the club. I didn't have any formal golf training as a youngster; I learned to play by feel and instinct. I didn't want to work on my swing. I just wanted to play.

By playing regularly at Merion, one of the architecturally finest courses in the world, I learned the fine art of shot making. I knew how to hit fades and draws, high shots and low ones, grass shots and bunker shots, run-up shots and wind shots, you name it. I knew what to do, I just didn't know how to do it. And I certainly didn't know how to tell anyone else how to do it.

But I was being asked to teach lessons and I thought I had better learn how to do that well. I knew about grip and setup, but I really didn't know about swinging the club. I wanted to be able to convey that information in the simplest way possible.

In the late '50s, all teaching was about the hands and clubhead. All of a sudden, it occurred to me that you don't actually swing that end of the club. I came to see that you swing the handle end of the club. I never called it the "butt" of the club; that didn't appeal to me. I prefer the "handle" or, more precisely, the "hub" of the club.

The swing is created at the hub of the club. There are two arcs in the swing: the outer arc and the inner arc. I thought that the inner arc -- that created by the handle -- is the one that truly matters and the one over which we have the most control. If you are in control of the inner arc, you are in control of the outer arc. But it doesn't work the other way around.

I began to see that this could really be the secret to the golf swing because everything you see happening with the swing begins and ends at the handle. The swing starts at the handle, it continues there, it accelerates there, and it stops there. You determine the length of the swing with the handle, you determine the tempo, the timing, and the rhythm. You do it all with the handle.

It's the principle of the wheel. When any kind of wheeled vehicle moves, it doesn't go anywhere unless the hub of the wheel moves. The rest of the wheel is attached to the hub. The spokes, the rim, the tire, the vehicle all move accordingly, and the faster the hub moves, the faster the vehicle moves. When you want it to stop, the brake mechanism slows the hub down and the vehicle comes to a stop.

That's exactly what happens in a golf swing. If you want to apply speed to the clubface, you do so at the handle. When you slow it down, you do so at the hub. When the hub comes to rest, the club should be full rested. Because there had been no teaching referring to the handle end of the club, as far as I was concerned I had made a discovery that others didn't know about. In my own mind, I had found the secret to the golf swing.

So I became my own guinea pig. I played using my theory and I played well enough to compete with the best players in the world. In my own mind, I felt that I truly knew some things the rest of the players didn't know. In that sense, I had more confidence than even I realized. I felt that I really knew what I was doing. To me, that's a big advantage. And I be-gan to translate my newfound discoveries to the Merion members.

Fred Austin was the head professional at Merion at the time. Remarkably, he had never played a round of golf. But he was a devotee of Ernest Jones, one of golf's all-time great teachers. Jones advocated swinging the clubhead, and his favorite drill was to attach a penknife to the end of a handkerchief and have the student hold one end of the cloth while swinging that knife back and forth. When the hands and knife were swinging together, Jones believed, you had the right prescription for the golf swing.

To Austin's credit, he never insisted that I teach that way, even though he was thoroughly convinced that Jones was right. That's why I have never forced any assistant who worked for me to employ my theory in his or her teaching. I'll be glad to answer any question they have, but I don't insist they do it my way. Let them do it their way.

Like Fred Austin, I am equally convinced that my way is the right way. It's been very, very rare when I've left a lesson with the feeling that I didn't help the person I was instructing. After nearly every lesson I've ever given, I've felt that I've offered the student more than what he bargained for. He got what he wanted and then some.

Growing Up

Meridian, Mississippi, was a wonderful place for a boy to grow up in the 1930s and '40s. It was a farming community that lay on a little crossroads, midway between Jackson and Birmingham, right on the Alabama line. Its remote, country location made life simple.

I was born and raised there and lived there for my first twenty-four years. Like most red-blooded American boys, I was exposed to all the usual sports, especially football and baseball. I was captain of my junior high baseball team. I played those sports when I entered high school, but by that time I had been smitten with a new love -- golf.

During the summer that I turned eleven years old, I was exposed to golf by some young friends who had access to the one club in Meridian, a place called Northwood Country Club. I was so taken with the game that my parents, in self-defense, had to figure out a way to join the club in order to support my new habit. Every day after school, I headed directly to the golf course. I gave up the other sports because golf occupied every minute of spare daylight.

By the time I was thirteen, I was scoring in the 70s. At fourteen, I qualified for the Mississippi State Amateur. One of the reasons I bloomed so far so fast is that the men of the club took me into their fold. They invited me to play in their games, where we'd have games of chance that involved quarters and half-dollars, big money in those days, especially for a fourteen-year-old.

Their friendship and guidance were invaluable. These men of Northwood took me to play in tournaments, invitational-type events within a two-hundred-mile radius of Meridian, and I was fortunate enough to compete against players much better and much older than I was. I learned about playing and competing in such a short period of time and at such a young age that I grew up (in golf years) much faster than some of my contemporaries might have.

I'll never forget my compadres who helped start me in the game -- Neal Watts, Dick Lyle, Mac McAllister, and Bubsie Patty. In the beginning, we were constant companions. My first junior championship at the club, I lost in the final to Bubsie. He was older, but the defeat still hurt. We used to play little competitive games, like one that we called Short Man Chase.

We didn't have a driving range at Northwood in those days, but we had a practice tee near the ninth green where you hit your shag balls down the fairway and then went to pick them up. There sometimes were ten of us on the tee and we all hit shots and the player who hit the ball the shortest distance had to go and pick up all the balls and bring them back. Then we had putting games and we tried to encourage one another to practice as much as possible. To tell the truth, I didn't practice as much as some of my friends as a youngster because I preferred playing golf, believing it to be more beneficial than just hitting hundreds of balls on the driving range. I thought my development as a player would be better served by trying to shoot as low a score as I could and trying to avoid losing in a match-play situation.

When I was seventeen and a senior in high school, I won the state junior championship, the state high school championship, and, that summer, the Mississippi State Amateur. That same year, I went to the quarterfinals of the Southern Amateur in New Orleans and won the Jaycee National Junior Championship in Ames, Iowa, beating Gay Brewer in the finals. Brewer at the time was the defending USGA Junior champion. He and I had quite a match over thirty-six holes, which I won 1-up.

But none of that held quite the thrill of an event later that summer, when I was privileged to play an exhibition with the great Byron Nelson in Brookhaven, Mississippi, about fifty miles from Jackson. I shot 68 to Nelson's 71 and was the low score in the foursome. I was ecstatic. The feat garnered some local publicity at the time, and it was a great accomplishment for one so young. However, in no way did I get the impression that I was as good as Byron Nelson. It was gratifying to have performed so well under those conditions. But as good as Nelson? Even at seventeen, I knew better than that. Copyright ©2006 by Swing the Handle, LLP

Meet the Author

Eddie Merrins is a true golf legend, one of the most admired and respected figures in the game for more than half a century. An accomplished junior and amateur player growing up in Mississippi, he turned professional in 1957 and has played in over 200 PGA Tour events. After stints as an instructor at the legendary Merion Golf Club outside Philadelphia, Thunderbird Country Club in Palm Springs, and the Westchester Country Club in Rye, New York, in 1962 he became head professional at the Bel-Air Country Club in Los Angeles and has stayed there ever since. At Bel-Air, Merrins has worked with some of the biggest names in professional golf and in the entertainment industry. In his spare time, he has coached the UCLA golf team to national prominence, winning the NCAA championship in 1988.

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