By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM
PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. -- John Merrick grew up about 40 minutes away from Riviera Country Club. He still lives in Long Beach, too, but he knows enough about the traffic on the 405 to ditch the commute and stay in Santa Monica this week during the Northern Trust Open.
Not to mention. Merrick attended UCLA, which is about 15 minutes from the fabled course that once boasted the likes of Humphrey Bogart, Peter Falk and Katherine Hepburn among its star-studded roster of members. So could there be any other place more apropos for him to pick up his first PGA TOUR victory in his seventh year as a member?
Merrick has certainly put himself in prime position, too, after Saturday's 70 left him tied for second at 9 under, three strokes behind Bill Haas.
"I saw some UCLA cheerleaders out there, pretty psyched," Merrick said. "Got a lot of support out there from fans and friends and family coming up from Long Beach. So it was a good time."
Merrick opened the third round with a bang, too -- making a 6-foot eagle putt at the first hole. He gave those shots back, though, with bogeys on the next two holes and made the turn 1 over for the day after another on No. 8.
A second eagle, this time courtesy of a 46-foot putt, at the 11th hole got Merrick back into red numbers. He got up and down from the greenside bunker at the 17th hole, the final par 5, to briefly get within two shots of Haas before giving it back when he missed the 18th green and couldn't save par.
"I'll take it," Merrick said. "I played the par 5s great. You're going to have to make a lot of putts out here because you're not going to hit every green. You know you're going to be chipping and you have to make those putts inside ten feet. But I was generally happy with the day."
Merrick, who hit eight fairways and 10 greens in regulation on Saturday, liked the way he hung in as the course toughened up. He knows he'll have to be aggressive to catch Haas but he'll be cautious at the same time.
"You really need to pick your spots here, definitely," Merrick said. "You can't shoot at every flag, and that's kind of one of those things around here, it just baits you into being more aggressive than you need and you need to putt well obviously."