L.A. has storied PGA history

When John Merrick captured the Northern Trust Open last year at Riviera Country Club, he made a bit of history by becoming the first player born in Los Angeles County to win the tournament that dates to 1926.

Merrick, who was born in Long Beach and played at UCLA, beat Charlie Beljan with a par on the first playoff hole, claiming his first PGA Tour title on a course he played often as a Bruin.

“I love the course,” Merrick said of the classic George C. Thomas layout nestled in the eucalyptus trees of Santa Monica Canyon 6 miles from the UCLA campus. “We all love the course.

“I can’t even put it into words. … You know, you think about it, when you’re alone sometimes. You know, as a kid, watching on TV. And (Steve) Elkington won the PGA (in 1995) 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.”

By winning, Merrick etched his name on a trophy that includes the likes of Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson, Sam Snead, Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson, Johnny Miller, “Lighthorse Harry” Cooper, Gene Littler, Billy Casper, Phil Mickelson, Els, Jimmy Demaret, Lawson Little, Lloyd Mangrum, Billy Casper, Tommy Bolt, Fred Couples, Dave Stockton and Macdonald Smith.

The tournament also was played at Wilshire Country Club, El Caballero Country Club in Tarzana, Hillcrest Country Club, Griffith Park Golf Course, Valencia Country Club, Inglewood Country Club, Fox Hills Country Club in Culver City, Rancho Park Golf Course and Brookside Golf Course in Pasadena, next to the Rose Bowl.

Since 1973, the event has been contested at Riviera every year except two, when the course in Pacific Palisades was preparing for the 1993 PGA Championship and the 1998 U.S. Senior Open.

In spite of all the changes in venue, the iconic tournament has a history that stacks up with any event on the PGA Tour.

When the Los Angeles Junior Chamber of Commerce, which still manages the tournament, put up a $10,000 purse for the first Los Angeles Open at Los Angeles Country Club in 1926, it was the largest prize in professional golf.

This is the event in which Babe Didrickson Zaharias became the first woman to play in a PGA event in 1938 at Griffith Park, and where boxing great Joe Louis was the first African-American to play in a PGA-sanctioned event in 1952 at Riviera.

It was 17 years later that Charlie Sifford, the first African-American member of the PGA Tour, won the L.A. Open at Rancho Park by beating Harold Henning of South Africa with a birdie on the first playoff hole.

Hogan won the L.A. Open three times, and when he captured it in 1947 and 1948 sandwiched around the 1948 United States Open, all at Riviera, they began calling the place “Hogan’s Alley.”

Even though he never won the tournament, Jack Nicklaus earned his first golf paycheck, $33.33, in 1962 when he tied for 50th at Riviera.

Palmer won the L.A. Open in 1963, 1966, 1967, as many times as Hogan, but one off the record shared by Mangrum and Smith.

Palmer also made news when he recorded a 12 on the 18th hole during the first round of the tournament in 1961 at Rancho Park. Palmer split the fairway with his drive but sliced his next two shots into the driving range and hooked two more onto Patricia Avenue. He finally hit the green and two-putted.

When asked by reporters how he made a 12, Palmer quipped: “I missed a putt for 11.”

The L.A. Junior Chambers of Commerce placed on plaque commemorating the event on the 18th tee.

In 1995, Corey Pavin, a gutty little Bruin from UCLA, became the fifth player to win the L.A. Open in consecutive years, joining Smith, Hogan, Palmer and Paul Harney. In 2004, Mike Weir of Canada became the sixth back-to-back winner, and Phil Mickelson did it in 2009.

Tiger Woods played in his first PGA Tour event at Riviera in 1992, when he was a 16-year-old at Western High in Anaheim, but he missed the cut in the first of his seven appearances in his hometown event.

Once Woods began his pro career, everyone figured it was only a matter of time before he won the tournament. He came close, losing in a playoff to Billy Mayfair in 1998 at Valencia and tying for second, two shots behind Els in 1999 at Riviera.

Woods is not in the field this year and hasn’t been since 2006. He’s a Florida guy now.

Even Los Angeles Lakers legend Jerry West, who was tournament director of the Northern Trust Open for four years until resigning a few months ago, couldn’t persuade Tiger to come back to Riviera.

Last year, Jill Painter, a columnist for the Los Angeles Daily News, wrote an article on the subject in which she asked Woods, “Was it something we said?”

Since he is such a private person for a public figure, there is no telling if the prodigal son will ever return and add to Riviera’s history.

–Story courtesy of The Sports Xchange, TSX Golf Editor Tom LaMarre

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