If not for a brief polio scare, Eddie Merrins may never have taken up golf. And if Eddie Merrins had never taken up golf, well, the game would have been deprived of one of its great gentlemen – and teachers.
When Merrins was an 11-year-old in Meridian, Miss., that polio scare forced him to skip summer camp. Invited by some buddies for a round of golf, Merrins went along – and that was that. His passion for the game became so intense, Merrins quit football and baseball to focus on golf full-time. He eventually earned a scholarship to play at LSU, where he twice won the Southeastern Conference championship before moving on to the professional ranks in 1957.
Like many tour players of the time, Merrins took a job as a club pro to help make ends meet. It wasn't just any club, either, but fabled Merion outside Philadelphia. His interest in teaching blossomed during his two years there, as did his understanding of the swing.
Merrins would continue playing and teaching at clubs on the East Coast until 1962, when he was offered the job as head pro at tony Bel-Air Country Club in Los Angeles. He accepted, of course, and the man known affectionately as “the Little Pro” due to his 5'7” stature remains at Bel-Air as Golf Professional Emeritus as of September 2012.
Over the course of 50 years, Merrins has taught a host of famous entertainers and athletes: Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, Jack Nicholson, Ringo Starr, Celine Dion, Marcus Allen, Jerry Rice… The list goes on and on. In fact, it's been said of Merrins that “the stars revolve around him.”
But Merrins has been much more than just the go-to teacher of celebrities. He coached the UCLA golf team from 1975-89, turning out prominent pros including Corey Pavin and Duffy Waldorf and winning a national title in 1988. His services were also sought out by the likes of Ben Crenshaw, Raymond Floyd and Vijay Singh.
Like many famous instructors, Merrins became associated with a single phrase that defined his philosophy in a nutshell: “Swing the handle.” His 1973 book, Swing the Handle, Not the Clubhead, proved hugely popular and brought his pet term into the golf lexicon. Swing the Handle is now available as a DVD series and a smartphone app.
Throughout his long career, Merrins has dispensed simple wisdom with warmth, charm and grace. Said Byron Nelson, “Eddie Merrins is and will go down in history as one of the best men in golf.”
That's a mighty big statement, indeed.
Famous students: Pavin, Crenshaw, Floyd, Singh, Tom Kite, Rocco Mediate, Gay Brewer, Steve Pate, Scott McCarron, Bob May, Amy Alcott
Core philosophy: If Merrins' “swing the handle, not the clubhead” mantra sounds like a rejoinder to Ernest Jones' “swing the clubhead” directive, that's no accident.
As an assistant at Merion, Merrins absorbed the teaching of head pro Fred Austin, a Jones disciple. But Merrins wasn't sold on Jones' concept – which held that the hands guided the swing -- observing that it caused some players to become too active with the hands and cast the club from the top. Merrins also believed the body's big muscles were given short shrift in Jones' teaching.
In 1960, Merrins was had a revelation: The golf swing is similar to a two-handed stroke in tennis, which is controlled by the forearms.
He applied the idea of swinging the handle to his own swing, liked the results, and implemented the notion into his teaching. Thus was born the “swing the handle” method – and the legend of Eddie Merrins.
You might say the forearms are the heart of Merrins' philosophy. He advocates using them to control the handle and thus, the clubhead, while keeping the hands and wrists in a more passive role. “Every great golfer I've known has had powerful forearms,” Merrins told Golf Digest in a 2007 interview. He recommends strengthening the forearms by squeezing a rubber ball, or tightly gripping then relaxing your hands on the steering wheel while driving.
Swinging the handle, in its simplest terms, involves a couple of key objectives:
1) Point the handle at the target line for the entirety of the swing while keeping the left wrist flat, and
Explains Merrins: “In a good swing both ends of the club – the clubhead and the handle – as well as the body should be moving in the same direction at the same point in time in the swing.”
Classic Merrins-style tip: To ingrain a rhythmic, free movement of the arms, Merrins instructs students to practice hitting shots with one hand while controlling the handle with the forearm.
When swinging with the right arm:
1) The elbow should fold effortlessly on the backswing, and
2) The arm should extend on the through-swing.
The opposite occurs in the left-arm-only swing:
1) The arm extends on the backswing, and
2) Folds on the follow-through.
If the arms don't fold at the proper time, the swing becomes inhibited. Master both halves of this drill and you're virtually guaranteed to become a better ballstriker.
Eddie Merrins - The Little Pro with a Big Idea
The pro golfers on the PGA Tour and other tours around the world tend to get the most attention within the game. After all, they are the ones on the television each weekend, competing for the biggest trophies in golf. However, there is another group of professionals that deserves attention as well - the teaching professionals, or club pros, who work at golf courses all around the world. These are the men and women who are teaching the game to the average amateur player, so they have a major impact on the future of the sport. If you have ever taken a golf lesson, you have had a one-on-one experience with a teaching professional.
One of the most notable teaching professionals of all time is Eddie Merrins. Merrins, who has been long known as the 'Little Pro' due to his diminutive size, has built a legendary career as a club professional, having held the title of Head Professional at the prestigious Bel-Air Country Club in Los Angeles for almost 40 years. Merrins has taught a wide range of players throughout his career, including many celebrity members of Bel-Air. Merrins is respected throughout the game at all levels, and his advice is valued by anyone lucky enough to receive it. In addition to his noted career at Bel-Air, Merrins also served as the highly successful coach of the UCLA Men's Golf Team, which won the 1988 National Championship under his leadership.
The 'big idea' mentioned in the title relates to Merrins main teaching point - that golfers should 'swing the handle', rather than the club head. This is an idea that runs counter to what is taught by many other pros around the world. Many teaching pros tell their students to focus on the club head itself, believing that it should be the focal point since it is the part of the club that will actually strike the ball. Merrins takes a different approach, however, and it has obviously led him to a tremendous career. By instructing players to 'swing the handle', Merrins has become one of the top teaching professionals in the history of the game.
In the content below, we are going to take a closer look at the concept of swinging the handle rather than the club head. Of course, the club head is connected to the handle by the shaft, so you are going to be controlling the club head by extension when you focus on the handle. However, this is a big difference in the way you think about the swing, and it has the potential to improve your performance dramatically. Take some time to understand the concept of swinging the handle and you just might look at the game in a whole new way.
All of the content below has been written from the perspective of a right handed golfer. If you happen to play left handed, please take a moment to reverse the directions as necessary.
Simplify Your Thinking
For many golfers, the moments before the swing begins are filled with confusion. As the average amateur player stands over the ball, they will have a million different thoughts and concerns running through their mind - which is exactly the opposite of what your mind should be doing before starting a swing. Rather than confusion and concern, your mind should be relaxed, focused, and calm when you are getting ready to take the club back away from the ball. With only one or maybe two thoughts in your head at address, you will be full of confidence and ready to strike an impressive shot.
One of the reasons that Eddie Merrins concept of swinging the handle has been so successful is the fact that it allows the player to quiet their mind nicely. This is a simple swing concept to grasp, so you won't find yourself standing over the ball with countless thoughts racing back and forth through your brain. If you are tired of feeling like your mind is going in every which direction while you are trying to focus on executing a good swing, give this swing method a try.
Many golfers allow themselves to get stuck in the habit of using complicated swing thoughts because they are able to get them to work nicely on the range. While on the range, your mind is relatively clear because there is nothing on the line, and very few variables to worry about. You simply pick a club, pick a target down the range, and swing away. If the shot doesn't go as you had hoped, it's no big deal - you just line up another ball and give it another try. It doesn't work that way on the golf course. There are consequences to your shots on the course when it comes to the score that you are shooting for the day. It will be hard to clear your mind on the course sufficiently to think about complicated swing thoughts, since you will also have to deal with pressure, wind, bad lies, tough hole locations, and more.
During your next range session, clear your mind and try to think only about swinging the handle back and through the shot. There should be no other technical thoughts in your mind at this point. Address the ball, get comfortable in your stance, and swing the handle through the backswing and downswing. At first you might feel a bit 'unprepared' for the swing, since you are used to relying on so many technical points. However, after you hit a few shots, you will start to enjoy the freedom that you feel in your swing thanks to letting go of those mechanical concerns. Swing the club back and through as freely as possible and the ball striking you are able to achieve should be noticeably improved.
Practicing while in this frame of mind will do you plenty of favors when you do head back out onto the course. Instead of your body being used to thinking about a long list of technical thoughts, you will now be used to hitting shots while only thinking about swinging the handle. Therefore, you will have plenty of 'space' in your brain to consider all of the variables that you are encountering on the course such as wind and pressure. Practice with this concept of swinging the handle at the front of your mind and your game should be much more reliable during your upcoming rounds.
The Importance of Rhythm
Eddie Merrins is a big proponent of using great rhythm in the golf swing, and it is easy to understand why. When you watch golf on television, you should notice one thing straight away - all of the professional golfers competing at the highest levels of the game have great rhythm in their swings. Those swings are all rather different from a technical standpoint, proving the point that there is more than one way to get the job done. However, no matter what kind of mechanics a particular player may use to send the ball on its way, they all have excellent rhythm and tempo in place. Trying to play good golf without a good rhythm in your swing is an impossible goal - it simply isn't going to happen.
Many amateurs struggle with the idea of rhythm because they are too obsessed with trying to put their body into perfect positions. The golf swing of the average amateur is a robotic action - they move from one position to the next, hoping it will all come together in a cohesive unit that leads to quality ball striking. The problem is that the game was not meant to be played in this way. Simply piling up a collection of good positions is not going to lead you to the 'promised land' in terms of your performance on the course. If it were that easy, the world would be full of scratch golfers - you would only have to learn the positions that you need to hit, and then you would be on your way.
If you are serious about playing good golf well into the future, working on your rhythm is something that should be at the top of your priority list. While most people are not lucky enough to get to work directly with a top teaching professional like Eddie Merrins, you can still learn from his lessons by taking to hear the importance of rhythm. During your next practice session, dedicate yourself to working on using a smooth rhythm from the start of your swing on through to the finish. Forget about your positions, and simply work on being as smooth as you can throughout the swing. By swinging the handle in an even, rhythmic fashion, you may find that the rest of those positions largely take care of themselves.
Think about it this way – if you had to put your body in certain positions during the swing in order to succeed, wouldn't every swing on Tour look exactly the same? Of course, they don't. You can see 100 different types of swings when you watch 100 golfers play in a tournament, but all of them have great rhythm. To move your game in the right direction, copy the thing that is common among all of the top players. Place maximum importance on swinging with a nice tempo on each shot that you hit and your results are going to be satisfying.
There is another benefit to working on your rhythm that goes beyond the simple quality of your ball striking. Those players with great rhythm are also more likely to hold up well under pressure, which is a key part of playing good golf. You probably think about pressure as being something that the pros have to deal with in big tournaments, but you might not realize that is applies to you just as much. Anytime you play a round of golf, you are going to face some degree of pressure. You want to do your best and post the lowest score possible, so you are going to get a little nervous when you face a difficult tee shot or a dangerous approach over water. How you handle yourself in those pressure moments will go a long way toward determining the quality of your play round after round.
Good tempo helps you to deal with the pressures of playing golf because your tempo is likely to carry you through even when your mechanics start to break down a bit. It is common to make technical mistakes in the swing when you get nervous, and those mistakes can potentially lead to terrible results. However, if you are able to swing the club with a nice rhythm, you should be able to overcome those mistakes and still have your swings lead to reasonable outcomes. If you have had trouble performing in the clutch during previous rounds, make sure to spend some time working on your rhythm on the driving range. Most players find that an improvement in rhythm is all they need to start coming up big when the pressure is on.
Forearms, Not the Hands
You might think that in promoting a method that asks the golfer to swing the handle, Eddie Merrins is telling players to use their hands to control the swing – however that really isn't the case. A swing that is controlled by manipulating the hands will rarely be successful on any level, as it requires tremendous eye-hand coordination to time up your release properly while using your hands to guide the club. On the contrary, much of this method is focused on using the forearms throughout the swing to control the handle – and the rest of the club by extension.
While this is a concept that is foreign to many golfers, even experienced players, focusing on the forearms is an effective way to think about the swing. Since the movement of your forearms is going to be mimicked by the club head as you swing back and through, you can use your forearms to control the club head nicely. Specifically, rotating your forearms through the hitting area will cause the club head to release and you may find you are able to strike plenty of powerful and accurate shots in this manner. By keeping your hands relatively quiet and using your forearms to control the action, you should produce a consistent and reliable swing path that only gets better with time and practice.
Another one of the points that Merrins likes to make which relates to the positioning of your forearms is the path that the handle of the club takes down toward impact. As you swing down from the top, think about pointing the butt end of the grip at the target line you have picked out for the shot. By swinging down on this path, you can send the club head directly into the back of the ball on an excellent plane. Most amateur golfers swing down from 'above' this plane, which leads to an outside-in path, and often a slice.
During an upcoming practice session, spend some time trying to trace the target line with the butt end of the grip as you swing down. At first, do this during some practice swings without actually hitting any shots. There won't be any pressure to strike the ball if you are just making practice swings, so you can feel free to follow that line down while getting comfortable with the concept. Once you have made a series of practice swings to learn the motion, put a ball down in front of you and hit a few shots. Throughout it all, make sure you are continuing to swing the club head freely throughout the swing. As long as you maintain freedom in your swing while following the target line down toward impact, excellent ball striking should be the final result.
Swinging the Handle in the Short Game
An experienced and accomplished golf teacher like Eddie Merrins fully understands just how important the short game is to the overall performance of a golfer. It is great to hit beautiful long shots, but those shots are only going to pay off in the form of lower scores if you are able to pair them with a solid short game. Unfortunately, most amateur golfers struggle when they get within close range of the cup, and their scores suffer as a result. If you would like to cut a significant number of strokes off of your average score, the first place you should look is your short game.
The 'swing the handle' concept works just as well in the short game as it does in the long game. Whether you are swinging a putter or one of your wedges, thinking about swinging the handle is a great way to free your mind. It is just as easy to get caught up in technical details with the short game as it is with the full swing, and thinking technically while trying to putt or chip is a recipe for disaster. The short game is all about feel and touch, and those things have nothing to do with mechanics. By trying your best to think only of swinging the handle while playing short shots, you will find that your feel improves and you quickly become better able to control the speed of the ball as it approaches the hole.
It is easy to fall into the trap of focusing on the putter head while on the green, so try shifting your attention to the handle during your next practice putting session. Manipulating the putter head during the stroke is a dangerous game to play, as you will likely wind up sending the ball offline when you try to square it up at impact using your hands. By swinging the handle instead, you can forget about what the putter head is doing while you rock your shoulders and forearms back and through. This technique will relax your mind and it will permit your stroke to move smoothly back and through – something that is essential for holing putts under pressure.
Another area of the short game where swinging the handle can greatly benefit your game is in the pitching category of shots. When playing from somewhere between 20-40 yards from the target, it can be very difficult to make a smooth and relaxed motion. However, that is exactly what is required to pitch the ball close to the hole on a regular basis. The average golfer feels 'stuck' in between a full swing and a chipping motion at this point, so they use some combination of the two and the results are disappointing. To keep your mind focused on the task of sending the ball close to the hole, think about swinging the handle when you play a wedge shot from this awkward distance.
The biggest contribution of the 'swing the handle' way of thinking to the game of golf is likely its insistence on the player using great rhythm and tempo to strike shots. The modern game has gone in a direction that is far to technical and analytical, and golfers are failing to improve as a result. Golf is not played in a lab – rather, it is played on courses with bumps, breezes, hazards, and more. To play good golf and shoot low scores, you don't need to be able to make a picture perfect swing. Instead, you need to be able to control your ball – as well as yourself – throughout the round. Golf is more about tempo than it is about technique, and that fact is clearly understood by the great Eddie Merrins.
It is hard to imagine anyone having a greater life in the game of golf than Eddie Merrins. The Little Pro has a long list of accomplishments behind him as a player, teacher, coach, author, and more. Not only has Bel-Air Country Club benefited from the expertise of Mr. Merrins, but the game of golf as a whole is better for his presence.