By Larry Dorman, PGATOUR.COM columnist
PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. -- It’s a roller-coaster ride down Sunset Boulevard to the UCLA campus from the front gate of the Riviera Country Club. You head east, past the 405 Freeway, six miles door-to-door on a narrow road with the kind of twists, turns, ups and downs that dreams are made of.
When he was a college kid on the Bruins golf team, John Merrick would travel the road once or twice a month, early in the morning with the sun at his back, heading up to play Riviera with his teammates. He has fond recollections of those days in 2001-04, trying to learn to unlock the secrets of the great old golf course.
“I love the course,” he said Sunday evening. “We all love the course. But I played it OK, not great. I think I had a couple rounds where I was maybe 3- or 4-under, playing in college.”
During some of those rounds Merrick would dream about one day playing in the annual PGA TOUR event that has come to be known as the Northern Trust Open -- the one he wound up making his first PGA TOUR victory Sunday, the one he grabbed hold of at Riviera’s famous 310-yard 10th hole not once, but twice, on Sunday.
Merrick’s first taste of the lead this week came when he birdied one of the meanest short par 4s in the game with a 13-footer from the right fringe to tie then-leader Bill Haas, who was walking up the 10th fairway at 11 under. He then took sole possession of it when he birdied the par-5 11th, hitting the green in two and two-putting from 23 feet to get to 12 under.
Throughout a raucous back-nine trip across Riviera, Merrick was tied three different times by three other golfers -- Hunter Mahan with a birdie at the 11th, Fredrik Jacobson with a birdie at the 16th, and Charlie Beljan, with a spectacular 18-foot birdie putt at the 18th that set off a roar and, ultimately, sent the tournament into sudden death.
The whole dream sequence became reality after Merrick and Beljan tied the 18th with pars in the playoff. When Merrick played the 10th for the second time exactly the way he would have drawn it up -- hitting a 3-iron safely into the fairway and wedging his second shot safely behind the pin, just against the light fringe. Beljan, who hit driver off the tee, hit his second on the fringe well below the hole, putted up to 6 feet, but missed the putt after Merrick had calmly tapped in for par.
When CBS’s David Feherty asked Merrick about the win moments afterward, the same player who had waited seven years for the moment, who had resolutely held fast in the face of the back-nine challenges and the sudden-death holes and who had pulled off a nervy wedge shot through the fork of a tree trunk at No. 17 when he needed a par, had a tough time controlling his emotions.
“I can’t even put it into words,” he said, as he teared up, realizing he had just done more than he had allowed himself to imagine, in those halcyon days of youth when he played the course. Never did he see himself at the trophy ceremony, not even when he was standing in the rain as a college senior watching Robert Allenby rifle a seeing-eye 3-wood into the 18th green to win a 6-way playoff, or when he saw Mike Weir, overcoming the odds to win his first of what would be back-to-back titles.
The idea was too big, too presumptuous. “I can’t get the words out,” he said on the green. Later after reflecting on it, he was able to understand why.
“Yeah, you dream,” he said. “You know, you think about ‑‑ when you're alone sometimes. You know, as a kid, watching on TV. And (Steve) Elkington won the PGA here, right? I remember watching that. Did Ernie Els have the lead? Yeah. I always remember that.
“Just seeing the course on TV and just, 'Oh my gosh, this is the coolest course.' You know, as a kid, you dream about playing that tournament one day. But to win it? You know, that was never -- I never factored in winning.”
Which would mean that sometimes the things you don’t even dare to dream can come true. Like Bubba Watson said after winning the Masters last year? That’s what Merrick from Long Beach, Calif., recognized what he had done at the venerable golf course some 30 miles north of where he grew up and still lives.
He had beaten the best field of the year in the U.S., he had broken through to win his first TOUR event and move to No. 4 in the FedExCup standings. He had done it in front of family and friends.
“Just putting everything together,” he said, “how everything came together this week with family and friends, people shouting, ‘UCLA!’ People shouting, ‘Long Beach!’ To do it close to home. I've been to this tournament more than any other tournament growing up, and this is my first win. It's just the laundry list goes on and on, and yeah, it's cool.”
Larry Dorman is a freelance columnist for PGATOUR.COM. His views do not necessarily represent the views of the PGA TOUR.