By WIL BARNES
Pacific Palisades, CA. – On what was an insanely gorgeous Saturday afternoon in Pacific Palisades, a few of us were seated high above the 18th green at Riviera Country Club in the Northern Trust hospitality tent when I spotted Jamie Mulligan walking alongside his pupil John Merrick up the 42 steps to the putting green. I sprinted to catch up to him and as he was checking his phone by the front entrance I just wanted to tell him, “It probably won’t be the most popular victory,” I began, “but it sure will be a great story if your boy John is able to get the win.” He nodded, smiled, shook my hand and said, “Thank you.” Jamie is a long time teaching professional, mentoring a stable of young players at Virginia Country Club in Long Beach. John Merrick is one of those as is John Mallinger, Peter Tomasulo and young star Patrick Cantlay.
As for popular, no one was more loved than Phil Mickelson garnering the most fans, many of them youngsters. On Saturday afternoon following his third round, he finished signing his card and exited the door to screams of young girls and boys waiting for his autograph. You would have thought the Beatles had returned. Fred Couples, now 54 was also trailing a throng still at his age. The leaders were quietly going about their business where Bill Haas shot 64 to take a three shot lead into Sunday. Merrick, a UCLA alum, was in a three way tie for second with 2011 Masters champ Charl Schwartzel and Webb Simpson, the reigning U.S. Open winner. That’s pretty heady company. It was also UCLA Day at Riviera, the school only a few miles up Sunset Boulevard. “Yeah, I saw some UCLA cheerleaders out there, pretty psyched,” he said after round three. “Got a lot of support out there from friends and family coming up from Long Beach. So it was a good time.” On Sunday, it became a great time when Merrick won for the first time on Tour, capturing the Northern Trust Open, winning a two-hole playoff over Charlie Beljan at a course he knows quite well, as a local boy made good.
After rounds of 68 – 66, John shot one under 70 on Saturday and was quite pleased to be where he was. “Yeah, I’ll take it, he said. “Here you have to pick your spots. I played the par 5’s great. I wanted to get in that last group. Not sure if I did.” He didn’t. He’d be out front of Haas, Simpson and Schwartzel. On the Sunday leader board there was more jockeying going on than the homestretch of the Santa Anita Derby. When Merrick rolled in a mammoth bomb at the par 5, 11th he was suddenly two in front of Freddie Jacobson, Haas and Schwartzel. The jockeys were whipping their ponies. And then this cat named Charlie Beljan, a free spirit and breath of fresh air in golf got in the fray. Good time Charlie sent the audience assembled on the amphitheater 18th into a frenzy when he rolled in a 24-footer for birdie to tie for the lead with Merrick and “Freddie Jaque.” Freddie putted to tie but missed on the high side, tapped in and was stewing, strolled about the green looking to throw his putter as far as he could. Only Schwartzel could join the party but he failed to make birdie so off to the 18th went Beljan and Merrick. Both would par 18 so it meant revisiting the playful par 4, 10th where Charlie went long and left, while Merrick laid up to wedge distance. He would convert his par and when Beljan failed to get up and down the crown went to the kid from Long Beach. He jumped into the arms of his caddie, a first time winner, a local boy makes good.
After being handed the trophy the grin never left his face for hours. “He really has a terrific sense of humor,” said Mulligan. “He does impersonations. He does Vijay, Ernie and does a hilarious Tommy Armour III.” I asked Jamie was there anything that he told him or that clicked that lead to his breakthrough win. “I told him to be tough. Stay focused. You’ve got the goods.” He paused and then said, “And he does.” It was the first win for the Long Beach contingent and a memorable one. It was also another victory for Riviera, the renowned George Thomas design that is loved and revered by the world’s best. That is except for Tiger Woods who once again snubbed the Northern Trust, a local boy that hasn’t played since 2006.
This year Rivera bathed in glorious sunshine and warm Santa Ana breezes that created such beauty many fans were still wondering about the course in late Saturday afternoon. From atop the 18th green inside the Northern Trust hospitality tent, the view of the Pacific Ocean and Catalina Island in the distance was breathtaking. The lush green turned emerald as the sun sank in the west. Riviera never looked so amazing. Saturday’s crowd was reminiscent of years past. I ran into former LA Lakers great and current tournament Executive Director Jerry West who was slightly under the weather as he headed to the volunteers party at The Grove, the pavilion just off 17 tee and 14 green open to the public. I asked him if he had thought about building a stadium-like arena on 14 making it a real party hole, sort of a mini16 at Phoenix. “Well that certainly is an interesting idea and has be given some thought,” he said smiling. “Northern Trust runs the tournament and it is their call. I’m not going to get into a controversy about what should be done. Let’s just say I have made my suggestions.” West is in what could be his last year in his current position. He is also president of operations for the Golden State Warriors of the NBA so his time is precious. “I’m not sure just what I am going to do at this point. I think we have done some great work with the City of Hope charities and Northern Trust has just re-signed for five more years so the tournament is a great position.”
Whether West stays on or those in command decide to liven up the party at the 14th, Riviera is still a diamond in the fairway, providing memories annually and when Mother Nature shines on her the beauty is illuminating. And maybe, just maybe another hometown son will return to make it electric.
Tournament Notes: Runner-up Charlie Beljan is truly enjoying his new success on the PGA Tour, having won the last event of 2012, the Children’s Miracle Network Classic at Disneyworld. He used some of his winnings to purchase a new 46-foot Newmar RV bus. He spent the week in the northern most spot in a Malibu RV park. “I got tired of spending nights in a hotel, staring at the walls with my remote control,” said Charlie, holding onto the visor he had his Saturday playing partners Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson sign. “I sit outside in my chair, make a lot of friends. Enjoy some cold beers. I see the sun come up with the ocean right outside my door. It’s awesome.” He ash already booked the same spot for 2014. … Walking along the 9th fairway Saturday I was introduced to maybe the best player at Riviera CC. Her name is Akemi Khaiat who has won the Ladies club championship nine times. Riviera plays to a par 74 for the gals where her best score is 69. “You have to know the greens here,” she said. “They can be very tricky. You don’t want lots of long putts.” Good advice. … One new pavilion at Riviera this year was just off of the 14th where Ketel One, the official vodka of the PGA Tour erected a small patio bar. It was packed all weekend. Inside The Grove was Nolet’s Gin, named the official gin of the Tour. Not surprising since Nolet’s is owned by the same family that owns Ketel.