Appreciation: Eddie Merrins, the ‘Little Pro’ and a giant of golf, dies at 91

Eddie Merrins, the beloved teaching pro at Bel-Air Country Club and longtime UCLA golf coach, famously distilled the complicated motion of striking a golf ball into one thought:

Swing the handle.

Don’t worry about the club head, he advised his pupils. Control what’s within your grasp — the club handle — and the rest falls into place.

Similarly, there’s a singular simplicity in the way the golf world remembers the genteel Merrins, who died Wednesday at age 91. He was the kind, unfailingly polite steward of the game whose nickname, the Little Pro, reflected his 5-foot-7 stature yet belied his outsized influence on golf in Southern California.

“He had this slow Southern drawl and easy way about him,” said David Reneker, a member at Bel-Air Country Club, where Merrins was the head pro from 1962 to 2002, then pro emeritus for 20 more years. “He had this way of putting you at ease.”

Even while conducting a lesson, the bespectacled Merrins, a native of Mississippi, was always impeccably dressed in a coat, tie and Hogan cap.

“Eddie was to golf in Hollywood what Jimmy Stewart was to the movie business,” said CBS commentator Jim Nantz, a Bel-Air member. “You think about how Jimmy Stewart was part of the fabric of the movie business, and there was something about him that was so gentle and kind and normal and real and family oriented. That’s what Eddie was to golf.”

In fact, that Hollywood superstar took golf lessons from Merrins. So did a wide array of celebrities, from Fred Astaire to Jerry West to Ringo Starr to Tom Brady. And it wasn’t just the rich and famous. Merrins taught the caddies, too, and the cooks, and everyday people who had never before picked up a club.

The professional players he worked with included Ben Crenshaw, Raymond Floyd, Tom Kite, Corey Pavin, Amy Alcott and many more. Merrins was there on the first tee when Jack Nicklaus and a young Tiger Woods met for the first time.

“You know the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game, where you connect everyone back to him? That was Eddie Merrins in golf,” said sportswriter Rick Reilly, a Bel-Air member. “He sat around and had drinks with Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan and Sam Snead. And even in recent years he knew all about recruiting, who the No. 1-ranked college player was, all of that.”

Merrins was UCLA’s golf coach from 1975 to 1989, developing the program into a national champion in 1988. Under him, the Bruins won three Pacific-10 Conference titles, and twice he was named conference coach of the year. The school produced three Hall of Fame players during that stint: Pavin, Duffy Waldof and Steve Pate.

The impact of Merrins was felt well beyond Westwood. In 1979, he established the nonprofit Friends of Collegiate Golf — now known as Friends of Golf — to support junior golf in Southern California. To this day, that program has donated more than $10 million to youth golfers across the country.

Born in Meridian, Miss., on Aug. 4, 1932, Martin Edward Merrins was the son of Carrie Lee and Dominic Merrins, who were in the lumber business. Eddie was introduced to golf at a local club when he was in elementary school, and he fell in love with the game.

Golf loved him back. He won state amateur titles in 1950, ’53 and ’55, and was inducted in the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame in 2000. At Louisiana State, he twice won the Southeastern Conference title and was NCAA runner-up in 1952.

As a professional, he competed in more than 200 tour events, eight U.S. Opens, six PGA Championships and two British Opens.

Once, during the Bing Crosby National Pro-Am at Pebble Beach in the 1970s, he aced the par-three No. 7 by punching a three iron into the gale-force winds coming off the Pacific Ocean. The ball landed on the front edge and rolled into the cup.

Yet Merrins truly made his impact as a teacher. As the Los Angeles Times’ Bill Plaschke noted in a 2002 column, Merrins dispensed swing wisdom anywhere and everywhere, including once during a wedding.

“Standing at the altar, with the bride having just entered the church, Merrins was nudged by a fellow groomsman,” Plaschke wrote.

“‘He said he was having the dreaded balance problem,’ Merrins recalled. ‘What was I supposed to do?’

“Of course. Anyone in that situation would have, as Merrins did, stick out his hands and bounce on his feet and explain balance just as the bride was wobbling up the aisle.”

Swing the handle, Merrins preached. Let your hands start in New York and flow right through Chicago to Los Angeles. Smooth, measured and repeatable — just the way he led his life — and everything else would fall into place.