Merrick wins on old stomping grounds
LOS ANGELES — John Merrick never allowed himself to think about winning at Riviera.
Not when he was a kid attending his local PGA Tour event. Not when he was at UCLA and could play the fabled course. And certainly not late Sunday afternoon in a playoff when he faced a daunting 3-iron shot under a row of eucalyptus trees, and his opponent was in the middle of the fairway with a wedge in his hand.
No wonder Merrick was at a loss for words when he won the Northern Trust Open.
“Yeah, you dream,” Merrick said, his eyes still glossy. “When you’re alone sometimes, you think about different scenarios of winning tournaments. It was fun. We would always play here at UCLA and have great games out here. To be able to play the tournament was a dream of mine. But to win? I can’t describe it. It’s so much fun.”
Merrick hit the perfect shot under the trees on the 18th to escape with par, and he followed with another flawless shot to a skinny section of the 10th green on the second playoff hole to 18 feet. He made another par, and won when Charlie Beljan missed a 5-foot par putt.
It was the second straight year the Northern Trust Open was decided in a playoff on the 10th, a diabolical par 4 at 315 yards that requires skill and strategy, a hole where players are happy to walk off with par. Beljan made bogey twice on the 10th, once in a regulation and then when the tournament was on the line.
He went long and left both times, and in the playoff, his chip didn’t quite reach the green and he took three putts from 70 feet.
“I think you could play here 10,000 times and still not know how to play No. 10,” he said. “Eighteen is a great golf hole. I just find it tough that we go to No. 10 to play a playoff hole. I think it’s a great hole, don’t get me wrong. I’m not knocking it. But it’s just a tough hole to have a playoff on. We might as well go and put a windmill out there and hit some putts.”
Beljan, famous for having an anxiety attack when he won at Disney late last year, holed an 18-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole, similar to the theatrics provided last year by Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley, to close with a 4-under 67 and wind up in a playoff.
Merrick, who grew up in Long Beach, had a number of big breaks on the back nine. None was bigger than his second shot on the par-5 17th headed toward the trees, only to find that he had just enough of a gap to go for the green and make par. He had a 69 and finished on 11-under 273.
He also hit the trees with his tee shot on the 15th, and while it left him a hybrid to reach the green, it could have gone anywhere.
“You give me 100 balls off that tee, I’m not going to be there in that spot,” Merrick said. “I just hit a bad tee shot and was able to make par there.”
Such are the breaks it takes to win, and for Merrick, it was a long time coming. He won in his 169th start on the PGA Tour, earned another trip to the Masters and is virtually assured to qualifying for his first World Golf Championship next month at Doral.
Fredrik Jacobson missed a 4-foot par putt on the 18th hole that would have put the Swede in a playoff. He wound up with a 69 and tied for third with Charl Schwartzel (70) and Bill Haas (73), who also had chances to win at different stages in their rounds.
Graham DeLaet of Weyburn, Sask., closed with a 72, and finished eight shots back at 281.
The final round contained far more drama than anyone imagined at the start of the day, when Haas had a three-shot lead. Six players were separated by one shot going into the final hour at Riviera, and it easily could have been a repeat of that six-man playoff in 2001 in the cold rain.
This pleasant day of bright sunshine brought a few cloudy moments.
Hunter Mahan was tied for the lead after a 30-foot birdie on the 14th, only to drop four shots on the last four holes. Nothing stung worse than the par-5 17th, where he three-putted from about 30 feet for bogey.
He wound up with a 69. Jacobson was tied for the lead when he missed an 8-foot birdie attempt on the 17th, and then badly pulled a 4-foot par putt on the last hole and missed out on the playoff. The Swede closed with a 69, and bristled when asked about the final hole.