Eddie Merrins, aka the Little Pro, is best known for his “swing the handle” teaching philosophy, but former student Bob May remembers a more lasting lesson from the soft-spoken, diminutive Bel Air Country Club instructor with the vest, tie, tam o’shanter and twinkle in his eye.
“I’m very much an old-school player, and I still think of this as a gentleman’s game,” May said. “That’s what the Little Pro teaches: etiquette and respect. It’s why our game is different than the other sports, and I can’t think of a better ambassador for the game than Pro.”
When he first met Merrins, May was a hotshot 11-year-old junior golfer in Southern California. He had a problem, though. Another junior, Ken Tanigawa, kept beating him. Ken’s teacher? Eddie Merrins.
“I figured the only way to get to the bottom of this was to take a lesson from the Little Pro,” May said. “I remember my first lesson — he only let me hit three balls. I told my dad I didn’t want to go back.”
But May did go back and was soon rewriting the record books of junior golf in California. His success story is just one of hundreds that Merrins, 75, has authored in a 50-plus-year teaching career that was celebrated at his induction into the World Golf Teachers Hall of Fame on Jan. 17 in Orlando.
For Merrins, who played against Sam Snead, Byron Nelson and Arnold Palmer and taught movie stars like Jack Nicholson and George C. Scott, the honor is especially rewarding because he’s been elected by his peers, the Top 100 Teachers in America.
“As a teacher, the highest compliment you can receive is being inducted into the World Golf Teacher Hall of Fame,” Merrins said. “When my son told me the news, I welled up a little — they were tears of joy. It’s very humbling and satisfying.”
He first picked up the game as an 11-year-old in Meridian, Miss. A polio scare kept him home from camp one summer and some friends invited him to play at the local country club. He got hooked bad, giving up football and baseball. His father, who was in the lumber business, didn’t play, but he and his wife joined the local country club to feed their son’s golf jones.
Merrins was good enough right away to play with the older members. A few years later he was good enough to play (and beat) Snead and Nelson in exhibition matches. Then he got good enough to win the SEC Championship at Louisiana State. Finally, he was good enough to finish runner-up to Palmer in an amateur tournament.
“I remember that Sam Snead had the most beautiful sense of rhythm,” Merrins said. “Being around him was mesmerizing. You’d still feel his rhythm the next day. When I played with Arnold, I was leading with 10 holes to play. I played the next seven holes one under, but Arnold played them seven under.
“I always say that I was the first to see Arnie’s charge,” Merrins said.
They competed again when Palmer won the 1954 U.S. Amateur in Detroit, and the two remain close friends today.
“I find Arnold to be the most accommodating public figure I’ve ever known,” Merrins said. “It’s a good thing he’s not a girl because he doesn’t know how to say no.”
Merrins married his wife, Lisa, in 1961 and continued to play professional golf. He’s proud of his accomplishments as a player, which include competing in eight U.S. Opens, a win in the Long Island Open and a fourth place finish at the Beaumont Texas Open (his best finish in a pro tournament). But he discovered teaching when he took a job as a pro at Merion Golf Club outside Philadelphia in 1957. He spent his three years at Merion like a Rhodes Scholar, and the East Course was his Oxford.
“Merion is a citadel for golf,” Merrins said. “If you can’t pick up something there, then you’re numb to the world of golf.”
At Merion, Merrins studied Ben Hogan’s just published book, Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf and started doing his own research into the nature of the swing. He also found his calling. Helping people play better gave him a satisfaction he never found as a player.
“Teaching means more to me than any tournament because I’ve helped that person to help himself or herself,” Merrins said. “Playing is for personal satisfaction, but teaching is a labor of love.”
While beginning his teaching career, Merrins also had the insight that would lead him to develop his “swing the handle” philosophy that became his most lasting contribution to golf instruction.
Asked to explain how exactly “swing the handle” works, Merrins told a story about the 1978 British Open at St. Andrews. He was on the practice tee with Tom Kite, and Jack Nicklaus approached. They exchanged pleasantries and then Jack got right to the point.
“He looked at me and said, ‘You believe in swing the handle, don’t you? Explain it to me,'” Merrins remembered. “Out of the blue, a mental image came to me. I said, ‘Jack, you’re a tennis player. Swing the handle means the golf swing is just like a two-armed tennis stroke.'”
Merrins said Nicklaus took it all in with a completely neutral look and went back to his bucket of balls.
“And then, don’t you know, he won the tournament,” Merrins said. “I’m not saying it had anything to do with me, but you never know … “
Merrins kept playing in tournaments while at Merion and later when he took club jobs at Westchester Country Club and Rockaway Hunting Club in New York. He said he was “living the life of an itinerant preacher.” Then he got a call from Bel-Air Country Club while he was at an event in Michigan.
The favorite haunt of golfing movie stars like Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby needed a head pro. Would Merrins be interested? He and his wife went to Southern California for the weekend, and he stayed for the next 45 years as the swing consigliere to the Hollywood A-List.
He’s not a name-dropper, but when pressed Merrins will talk about playing with stars like Dean Martin. The Rat Pack’s boozy lounge lizard was a fictional character; Merrins remembers Martin coming to Bel Air every day during the week, teeing off in money matches with friends at 12:30 p.m., playing cards till 6 p.m. afterward and then going home to his wife.
“The whole time he’d be there, he’d have one drink, if at all,” Merrins said.
Through Bel Air, Merrins also met the UCLA chancellor, Charles Young, who asked Merrins if he’d be interested in coaching the college golf team. Merrins agreed and coached for 14 years, a run that included future PGA pros Duffy Waldorf and Corey Pavin and peaked in 1988 when the Bruins won the NCAA championship.
“I felt if I could teach these boys ‘swing the handle,’ we could win the championship in five years,” Merrins said. “It actually took 14 years, but in the end the championship justified the involvement all those years.”
While at UCLA, Merrins forged another close friendship, this one with basketball coach John Wooden. He admired Wooden’s coaching, particularly how well-prepared his teams were, his modesty and his sense of humor. The worst expletive he’d ever heard Wooden say was “Oh, my!”
“As a human being, Coach Wooden is the epitome of character,” Merrins said.
Words that many would use to describe the Little Pro himself.