This column first appeared in the March 2019 issue of GOLF.
You can trace the arc of Eddie Merrins’ life by the dozen Hall of Fames in which he’s been enshrined. There is the State of Mississippi Hall — Merrins was born with a plastic spoon in his mouth in a backwater town but went on to win the 1948 high school state championship. The LSU Athletic Hall of Fame is a nod to his standout playing career as an undergraduate. The UCLA HoF recognizes his 14 years as the head coach of the men’s golf team, including the 1988 national championship team.
But for the man known far and wide as the Li’l Pro, one bronze plaque cuts to the heart of his life’s work: the World Golf Teachers Hall of Fame. “It has been a great joy and a great honor to teach so many people this game and to help them learn to love it,” Merrins said the other day from his office at Bel-Air Country Club. “Students often say thank you at the end of a lesson, but I’m really the one who is grateful, because all of those golfers — with their curiosity and enthusiasm and their love of the game — have enriched my life so deeply.”
Merrins was Bel-Air’s head pro from 1962 to 2003, and at 86 he still comes to the club nearly every day, traveling on multiple passports: honorary member, head pro emeritus, and lifelong golf junkie. He still gives a handful of lessons each week, dispensing homespun advice with a trace of his boyhood drawl. What keeps him coming back day after day? “It’s where the game is,” he says.
The game was his ticket out of Mississippi. Merrins finished second in the 1952 NCAAs, but when he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Air Force, the Korean War interrupted his pro career for a while. He eventually made it out on Tour, playing in more than 200 events, but as he says, “In those days you had to have a teaching job to support your habit as a player.” He apprenticed at Merion, Westchester and Thunderbird Country Club in Palm Springs before landing his first head pro job in 1960, at Rockaway Hunting Club, an old-money enclave on Long Island.
Merrins kept haunting the Tour, but keep in mind that sportswriter Jim Murray would describe the L’il Pro as “5-feet-7 (in spikes), weighing 150 (after lunch).” He didn’t quite have the firepower to keep up with the Nelsons and Sneads of the world. (Merrins can still give detailed play-by-play of his best finish on Tour, in Beaumont, Texas, in 1961, when he was leading with nine holes to go but finished fourth.)
Luckily, the L’il Pro fell in love with teaching. He had learned the game from a disciple of Ernest Jones, the author of the very influential 1930s instructional book Swing the Clubhead. At Bel-Air, Merrins perfected his own theories on pupils that included Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, Sean Connery and Jack Nicholson. In 1973, he distilled his ideas into a popular book titled Swing The Handle, Not The Clubhead. The following year Merrins took the UCLA job, and through tireless fundraising turned a small-time program into a powerhouse, along the way attracting talents like Corey Pavin, Steve Pate and Duffy Waldorf.
The L’il Pro’s success at UCLA was all the more remarkable because it was not his day job. (Murray: “It was like Bear Bryant having to teach chemistry.”) How did he balance it all, including kids and a marriage that is approaching the 60-year mark? “When you’re in love with the game, you can’t get enough of it,” he says. “You wanna be involved in everything you can.”
But for all the things the L’il Pro has done in a life like no other, he will always be synonymous with Bel-Air. (The famous Swinging Bridge at the 10th hole was dedicated to him in 2015.) Dressed in his trademark snow-white driving cap and tie, Merrins brought an old-school gentility to a flashy place. In his own way, he had as much star power as any of his members. “The game is the great equalizer,” he says. “When they’re chasing that little white ball around, those celebrity people are just as normal as anybody you ever saw.”
A man who was been inducted into a dozen Hall of Fames has plenty of time for reflection. Though the L’il Pro is still spry, he’s already decided on his epitaph, one born of his countless lessons on the driving range: HE GAVE.