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USA Today Sports Media Group
USA Today Sports Media Group
Adam Schupak

Eddie Merrins, affectionately known as ‘The Li’l Pro,’ has died at 91

Eddie Merrins, who was affectionately known as “The Li’l Pro” and one of the most accomplished and decorated PGA professionals, died on Nov.22. CBS Sports’s Jim Nantz, a longtime close personal friend, confirmed his passing on Wednesday morning in Los Angeles after a long illness at age 91.

“The famed ‘Li’l Pro’ was a giant in the game,” Nantz said.

Merrins devoted his professional career to teaching the game as the longtime head professional at Bel-Air Country Club in Los Angeles (and eventually pro emeritus). In his spare time, he coached the UCLA men’s golf team to the 1988 NCAA title. During his 14-year tenure, Merrins coached 16 All-Americans, including Corey Pavin, Steve Pate, Tom Pernice Jr., Duffy Waldorf, Scott McCarron, Bob May and Brandt Jobe. At one time, eight of his former players represented the school on the PGA Tour, more than any other program.

“He taught me that if you want something you have to go get it yourself,” McCarron said via text. “No one is going to hand it to you.”

After starting his career at Merion Golf Club, Merrins moved to New York where he was elected to PGA membership and spent a year as a teaching professional at Westchester Country Club and two years as the head professional at Rockaway Hunting Club on Long Island.

During that tenure, he won both the 1961 Metropolitan PGA Championship and the 1961 Long Island Open. An outstanding collegiate golfer at LSU, Merrins won the SEC title twice (in 1953 and ’54) and was the NCAA runner-up in 1952.

As a professional, he competed in over 200 PGA Tour events, including eight USGA Open Championships, six PGA Championships, two British Opens and six PGA Club Professional Championships. He fell one victory shy at the 1954 U.S. Amateur of earning an invite to the Masters.

Back in those days, quarterfinalists were invited (now just the finalists receive that distinction). Merrins lost to Bob Sweeney, who reached the final before some young upstart named Arnold Palmer bested him on the 36th hole.

Merrins once told Golfweek that the beauty of his life in golf was that he had spanned so many generations. He knew Walter Hagen and played against Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, and, at age 17, in an exhibition with Byron Nelson. When he lost in the 1951 Southern Amateur final, Bobby Jones wrote Merrins a letter, congratulating him on his fine play.

“I lost to Arnold Bloom of Macon, Ga.,” Merrins said. “Had I won, I would’ve been the youngest winner since Jones, and I can’t tell you how much it meant to me to have him recognize a young boy on the threshold of doing something special in the game.”

In 1962, Merrins was named the head professional at Bel-Air Country Club in Los Angeles and became one of the most distinguished teachers of the game during a tenure that stretched to 2003. The famous swinging bridge on Bel-Air’s 10th hole was dedicated in Merrins’ honor in 2015. He wrote a popular instruction book entitled, “Swing the Handle, not the Clubhead,” and was inducted into the PGA Hall of Fame in 2009.

Merrins coached the men’s golf team at UCLA from 1975 to 1989, including two NCAA Players of the Year, Corey Pavin and Duffy Waldorf. Merrins guided the team to a No. 1 ranking, an NCAA National Championship, three PAC-10 Championships and earned PAC-10 Coach of the Year honors three times as well.

His 1981-82 team featured Corey Pavin, who was college Player of the Year; Jay Delsing, a first-team All-American; Jeff Johnson, who finished 10th individually and later became a club pro at Ojai (Calif.) Valley Inn & Spa; and Louis Bartoletti, who enjoyed a successful career in the golf business too.

“How good was that team? Well, our starting five for the NCAAs was so deep that year that we left Steve Pate and Duffy Waldorf at home.”

Eddie Merrins, left, with Arnold Palmer.

But it was the 1988 team that won the title.

“We had no expectations. Brandt Jobe was our star, and we had finished eighth in the conference tournament, out of 10 teams. By all rights, we shouldn’t have been in the national championships,” Merrins told Golfweek. “We were 13 strokes behind Florida entering the last day, but we got it going. The golf gods smiled nicely on us that year.”

It was memorable for another reason, too. It marked the first time a West Coast team had won the title in 35 years, since Stanford in 1953. In 1979, Merrins pioneered the “Friends of Collegiate Golf” non-profit organization, now known as “Friends of Golf,” to support junior golf in Southern California. It has raised more than $10 million for the game.

Merrins was born on August 4, 1932, in Meridian, Mississippi. He won three state amateur titles in 1950, 1953 and 1955, and was inducted into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame in 2000.

Merrins is survived by his wife Lisa, two sons, Mason and Michael, and daughter Randy.

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