Q&A: Eddie Merrins, former UCLA head coach

Eddie Merrins, left, with Arnold Palmer

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Eddie Merrins devoted his professional career to teaching the game as the longtime head professional at Bel-Air in Los Angeles (and now 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 and Brandt Jobe. At one time, eight of his former players represented the school on the PGA Tour, more than any other program. Merrins recently spoke with Golfweek about his tenure as coach, his best team and the quality he believes is the key to success.

GW: How did you become the UCLA golf coach?

In the mid-'70s, Charles Young, the chancellor of UCLA, who had become a member here at Bel-Air, asked me to coach the team. He was very close to the athletic program. He looked at the totem pole of the athletic department, and golf happened to be at the bottom and he wondered why. The fact was, the previous coach didn’t have access to the resources I did: good instruction, access to golf courses and the things that go into a good golf program. I started in 1975 and did that for 14 years.

GW: How did your friendship with John Wooden, "The Wizard of Westwood," develop?

My first year was John Wooden’s last year as UCLA basketball coach. We used to go around the track together. He walked five miles a day for his heart. I was into jogging. He could walk as fast as I could jog. We talked golf the whole way. He loved golf. Byron Nelson was his favorite because he was a man of character. He looked at golfers as an exceptional lot because they represented character that he didn’t see in other sports.

GW: How great was your 1981-82 UCLA team that won 13 tournaments in 20 starts, including five straight and a Pac-10 title?

In those days, I used to carry a big team. I had 20 players on the team. At one time, we might have three different teams competing in three different tournaments. That’s one of the reasons we had that kind of talent.

GW: How close did you come to winning the title in 1982?

We were favored as the top seed. We finished sixth at Pinehurst. Houston won it. The course at Pinehurst didn’t really favor us. I remember Houston played the par-5 holes in 24 under as a team.

Something unusual happened that year to your star player, Corey Pavin. What was that?

He shot 74 the second round. We finished late that day because of a series of rain delays. He was paired with Oklahoma State in the last group of the day. He signed his card and turned it in. I got a call within the hour from the tournament committee that there was a problem and I had better get over there.

They presented the facts to me. His scorer had failed to sign and attest his card, and a card needs to have two signatures. They ruled his score couldn’t count for the team score, and he was disqualified from the individual portion of the tournament. Credit to him, he shot a total of 286. I think 282 by Billy Ray Brown, a freshman at Houston, won that year.

GW: How good was your 1981-82 team?

It was quite competitive on our team just to see who would play. Often times, they were under more pressure in the practice rounds than they were during the tournaments. That was one of the things I believed in. We counted all the practice scores, and competitive rounds counted doubled. You could move up and down the ladder depending on how you played. That year, we had Corey Pavin, who was college Player of the Year; Jay Delsing, a first-team All-American; and Jeff Johnson, who finished 10th individually and later became a club pro at Ojai (Calif.) Valley Inn & Spa. Louis Bartoletti was a terrific player, and he’s been actively involved in the golf industry, too. Mickey Yokoi played a little bit on the Tour and then went to Arizona State as an assistant and became head coach at Long Beach State. You asked 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.

GW: Somehow that talented group never won a title. But your team won the championship several years later. What do you remember about that?

The year we did win, in 1988, 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. 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. I actually played in that one as a student at LSU, and Stanford beat us out on the last nine holes. Grant Spaeth, who later became president of the USGA, shot 32 on the last nine to shoot us out of the tree. We (LSU) were going to win it.

GW: To what do you attribute the success of your players?

I dealt with a lot of youngsters over the years, and you try to figure out why one succeeds and another doesn’t, and the word that pops up all the time is determination. The guy more determined to get there will figure a way. You see a lot of talented players who don’t have that determination, and they don’t get there. Tom Pernice has always been a hard worker. He developed a friendship with Vijay Singh just because he liked his work ethic. Tom’s continuing to do well just because he worked so hard to get there.

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