LOS ANGELES (AP) — Eddie Merrins was known as “The Little Pro” because of his 5-foot-7 stature, certainly not his influence on golf. The longtime pro at Bel-Air Country Club touched everyone from U.S. Open champion Corey Pavin to Fred Astaire and even Mikhail Baryshnikov.
Merrins died Wednesday in Los Angeles at age 91 after a long illness, according to UCLA, where he coached for 14 years.
“The game of golf is a very selfish game in the sense that you’re the only one who gets any real enjoyment out of what you do,” Merrins once said. “But in teaching, you get the satisfaction of knowing that you’ve helped somebody.”
Merrins certainly could play. He played 82 times on the PGA Tour, but never more than 10 tournaments in a year. He qualified for the U.S. Open eight times and the PGA Championship six times. He once 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 book in 1973 titled, “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 over and said his swing felt short and tight, and asked what Merrins could offer.
“I watch Arnold for a bit, then tell him to swing the handle end of the club and keep the joints free. I just know this is the way to lengthen his arc, and sure enough, Arnold starts hitting some good shots,” Merrins said. “He’s all excited and thanks me. The next day, in the first round, he shoots 89. That tip didn’t work out so well. In fact, it might have prompted his early retirement from the Masters.”
Merrins was born in Meridian, Mississippi, and twice won the SEC title playing for LSU. He had early stints as a teaching pro, taking the head job at Rockaway Hunting Club before landing in 1962 at Bel-Air, where he spent the better part of five decades.
He worked two jobs for a while — Bel-Air and coach of the UCLA golf team from 1975 until 1989, during which the Bruins brought home an NCAA title in 1988. Among those who played for him were Pavin, Duffy Waldorf, Steve Pate and Brandt Jobe.
The nickname came from his playing career on the PGA Tour. Merrins told Golf Digest he often played practice rounds with Jerry Pittman, the head pro at a course on Long Island.
“Jerry began calling me The Little Pro, and it caught on,” he once wrote. “I like it. I’m only 5-7, and it’s little wonder it stuck. The thing is, when he gave me the nickname in the late ’50s, being 5-7 wasn’t all that short. But it is by today’s standard. And at 74 I’m getting shorter all the time.”
He was easy to identify, more for his jacket and white driving cap than his size. And he was fully invested in golf in Los Angeles. Merrins started the “Friends of Collegiate Golf” in 1979 to support junior golf, and that became known as “Friends of Golf.” It has raised more than $10 million for juniors across the country.
He was a popular figure when golf came to Los Angeles, either the PGA Tour or USGA championships. His life centered around golf, even his own game.
In the “My Shot” story for Golf Digest in 2010, Merrins spoke of becoming frustrated with his game and wondering if it had to do with his deteriorating hand-eye coordination. So he made an appointment with an ophthalmologist for testing.
The doctor, Robert Hepler, told him to be sure to bring a driver, which Merrins found odd.
“When Dr. Hepler saw me and the club, he started laughing,” Merrins wrote. “‘No,’ he said, ‘I meant for you to bring a driver so you would have a ride home after the appointment.’ The story got around fast, and I became the laughingstock of the community.”