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Merrick breaks through

The Long Beach resident and UCLA graduate wins the Northern Trust Open for his first PGA Tour title

By Mark Whicker
The Orange County Register
Published: February, 2013

They talked about it, teacher and player, as the Northern Trust Open moved into the weekend and John Merrick was still around.

“How tough can you be? How patient can you be? How comfortable can you be?” Jamie Mulligan asked him.

Tournament winner John Merrick tees off at the second hole during the Northern Trust Open at Riviera Country Club Sunday.

It also came down to how smart.

The second hole of Merrick's playoff with Charlie Beljan was the 10th. That's the 310-yard par-4, the little coral snake that looks so innocent and plays so lethal.

Merrick, from Long Beach and UCLA, has played No. 10 enough to ignore the siren song. He tossed a nice 3-iron into the fairway and left himself a full lob wedge into the sausage-shaped green.

Beljan, who had fired up the crowd on 18 with his birdie celebration in regulation, weighed his decision. When he pulled out the driver, the patrons who stood around the first tee cheered.

Beljan then walloped his tee shot deep left, behind the green, and basically into the mortuary.

Merrick played the percentages and left himself a 20-foot birdie. Beljan's second shot didn't make it to the green, and he chipped to 6 very curvy feet.

Merrick two-putted. He and caddie Ryan Goble began thinking about the next hole, the 14th, a par-3. He was going to use a 5-iron there and was contemplating the wind and the ball flight ... and then Beljan missed.

Merrick and Goble hugged for a long time. Merrick's wife, Jody, was next. Mulligan and Merrick's father, Charlie, were there, too.

How emotional? Well, it was the first time the 10th green got watered all week.

“His goods have been good for a long time,” Mulligan said, his voice catching. “He's a great ball-striker, he’s got a beautiful stroke. He’s been a slow climber, always under the radar. But he played well at another iconic place (Pebble Beach, finishing 16th) and he kept that momentum going.”

Merrick, 30, thus won his first PGA Tour event.

Here, he was one of three players to break par-71 every day, and came into the final round trailing Bill Haas by three.

Merrick bobbed and weaved through Sunday's front nine, and Haas suffered a hallucinogenic, 5-over-par, seven-hole stretch to invite everyone into contention, including heavyweights like Webb Simpson, Luke Donald and Charl Schwartzel.

Merrick was one of two contenders (with Schwartzel) to birdie No. 10, on a sharp-breaking 13-footer.

When he birdied the par-5 11th he was suddenly two strokes ahead of everyone, seven holes to go, the golf world watching.

What’s the game plan for that?

“It's hard; you get flashes in your head about winning,” Merrick said. “Then you say, oh my gosh, what am I doing? You realize you have to slow down. You'll get to the finish line.”

Merrick was no sea of tranquility down the stretch. He played the final seven holes 1-over par. He rolled in a 25-footer for par on 14. He misdirected a drive on 15 that got a happy bounce, and found par. He drove into a trap on 17, skulled his second, got lucky when he had an opening between trees, and saved par.

“I felt kind of invincible after that,” Merrick said.

Beljan had won Disney World last fall while getting treatment, including hospital care, for an anxiety attack. He has tons of game, and he drove it perfectly on 18, the first playoff hole, while Merrick faded his drive into rough.

“There were no good options,” Goble said.

But Merrick saw something no one else could. He took a 3-iron, played it back in his stance, and feathered his approach to the back of the green, a “beautiful spinner,” as Mulligan called it.

Beljan somehow hooked his approach off a fade lie, and both made par. Then came No. 10, where Merrick won, just as Haas had in the 2012 playoff.