You could call Eddie Merrins the Godfather of Southern California golf, except that the twinkle in his eye is too kindly to remind you of Don Corleone. So let’s call him the Grandfather of Southern California golf.
Merrins, known as “the Lil’ Pro” to everyone in these parts who cares about the game, taught stars like Jack Nicholson as head pro at Bel Air Country Club during his 50-plus-year teaching career. He also coached the UCLA men’s golf team for 14 years, a span that included the Bruins’ NCAA championship in 1988. (To learn more about Merrins’ rich and varied career, check out this profile.)
He made the two-hour drip down Interstate 5 from Los Angeles to Torrey Pines in San Diego this week to see old friends, sign copies of his book “Playing a Round With the Little Pro,” and mostly to enjoy a day he’s been anticipating for a long time: the return of the U.S. Open to Southern California, a place it hasn’t been since 1948, when it was played at Riviera Country Club in L.A.
“The bluecoats were on the East Coast,” Merrins said of USGA officials, who have long favored Northeast courses like Winged Foot, Baltusrol and Shinnecock Hills. They came West every decade or so, but to Northern California’s famous courses, The Olympic Club in San Francisco and, of course, Pebble Beach. “The USGA is mainly on the East Coast, and they might not have been as aware of the West Coast scene.”
According to Merrins, it’s the same reason those college football polls favor the Big Ten and the SEC over the West Coast conferences: East Coast bias, the Bruins football fan said.
In L.A. alone, he said, both the Riviera Country Club and the Los Angeles Country Club could take on a U.S. Open. He added that he knows Riviera wants an Open. Logistically, Bel-Air would be difficult, Merrins said, but the course itself is up to world-class standards. Torrey Pines is a perfect host because the property is so big.
“The real reason they’re here [at Torrey Pines] is the acreage, plus the likelihood of good weather,” Merrins said. “The USGA is beginning to realize that you can almost assume you’ll get good weather here. And the time difference lets the tournament run into prime time back east, which for the sake of television and the fans I think is beautiful.”
The true star of the show is the city of San Diego, Merrins said, hometown of U.S. Open Champions like Billy Casper (1959 and 1966), Gene Littler (1961) and Scott Simpson (1987). And some would call San Diego native Mickey Wright the greatest professional golfer of all time. She retired at age 34 in 1968 with 82 victories, including 13 major championships.
“This U.S. Open will feature the San Diego area in a light that hasn’t been shown before,” Merrins said. “The proximity to Mexico, the ocean, the athletic facilities, the mountains, and not too far to the east you have the desert and Palm Springs.”
This area loves the game, too, Merrins said, so don’t mistake U.S. Open fans’ casual, laid-back style for indifference.
“The West Coast is more casual in its approach to everything,” Merrins said. “East Coast and Southern fans are much more rabid when it comes to their sports, but there’s such diversity here with other sports.”
It’s not hard to understand why they’re so laid-back here after the succession of sunny 80-degree days in San Diego this week. In California, you can play golf every day, something Merrins has done at Bel-Air. Sometimes this whole tournament looks like an extended advertisement to get people to move to San Diego. Turn on, tune in and tee off.
But the famously sharp-dressed Merrins, who wears a vest, tie and tam o’shanter when he plays, doesn’t think that casual attitude is ideal in all matters, especially when it comes to clothes.
“Sometimes I think we take it too far,” he said with a rueful smile.