It was almost prophetic, you could say, if you stretched it a little. The overcast that can envelop California's south coast during early summer disappeared in favor of golden sunshine on July's third weekend at La Jolla Country Club. The blues brothers — the sky and sea — colored the day Bruin blue and gold.
In what became a battle UCLA students, 19-year-old John Merrick of Long Beach fired a 3-under-par 69 and held off a strong back-nine rally from teammate Travis Johnson to win the 102nd SCGA Amateur Championship by two shots.
Merrick joined only a handful of teenagers who have recently captured the nation's second-oldest, continuously contested amateur golf championship with a 74-67-70-69 — 282. Tiger Woods (1994) is among the other "kids" to win it during the past two decades. And Woods' record setting 270 was one of only three totals better than Merrick's 8-under-par score which he made over the venerable La Jolla CC layout.
The 20-year-old Johnson, from Bellflower, finished at 71-71-72-68 — 282. It was his third close finish of the summer; he lost the California Amateur Championship to Darrly Donovan at Pebble Beach Golf Links and was runner-up in the Long Beach Match Play Championship the week before the state. "I guess I'm Mr. Bridesmaid," he said after the final round at La Jolla.
It was another five shots back to a quartet of golfers who tied for third, a group which included reigning U.S. Mid-Amateur champion Greg Puga of Los Angeles and 42-year-old Don DuBois who, along with Scott Almquist were the only non-collegians to finish in the top 12 this year. Merrick's victory broke a streak which had seen "post-college" golfer win six of the previous seven events, including the last two.
The win capped a memorable fortnight for Merrick, the first UCLA golfer to win the tournament since Jim Porter captured the title in 1974. Merrick decided to switch to a cross-handed putting grip just before the Long Beach City Amateur, which he went on to win by four shots. "That win (his first title since the 1998 Moore League finals while he was still a student at Wilson High) gave me a lot of confidence," said Merrick, " especially when things got interesting on the back nine. I kept my cool and remembered what it felt like to win."
What made things interesting on the back nine was the par-fourth 14th hole where Johnson holed a 157-yard eight-iron shot for an eagle 2. He followed that up with a birdie on the par-five 15th to pull within one shot of the lead momentarily.
Merrick was aware of Johnson's charge. Undaunted, he re-established his cushion moments later with a 12 foot putt for an eagle 3 on the 15th and birdie 2 on the 16th hole. After stumbling with a bogey on the par-five 17th, Merrick laced an approach to within 15-feet of the hole on the par-four 18th and two-putted for victory.
The new putting style was not the only thing the six-foot, 160-pound Merrick tweaked in weeks preceding the championship. He shot a first-round 67 in the NCAA regionals without using his driver and invoked a little of that technique over La Jolla's 6,685-yard layout. On eight of the par-fours he hit two or three iron. But hearing Johnson's footsteps, he unloaded a big drive at 15 when he needed it on the way to the key eagle.
The new champion didn't have an especially auspicious beginning, firing a 74 (including a triple bogey on his opening hole, the par-four 11th) and trailing first-round leader, 1999 champion John Pate by eight strokes. Pate's tournament-low round contained just one hiccup — a bogey at the 405-yard sixth hole (he started on No.11) — which was quickly erased with an eagle 3 at the 559-yard eighth.
Pate had a two-stroke lead over 1999 state amateur winner Nick Jones of USC and reigning SCGA Senior Amateur champion Ted Lyford. He came back to the field, however, in the afternoon second round with a 73 that included a double bogey at the 14th when he "shanked a two-iron out of bounds." That enabled Steve Mena, who recently finished eligibility at Long Beach State, to move into a one-stoke lead after his second straight 69. Mena started slowly, but blistered the back nine in 4-under-par.
Merrick got back into contention with a second-round-low 67, which moved him into a tie with two other youngsters, Escondido's Brett Foulds and El Cajon's John Lieber, each of whom went 71-70 on the grueling first day.
The cut was 150 and among those who didn't make it was defending champion Scott McGihon, whose afternoon 1-over-par round wasn't enough to overcome a horrific opening 80 (in which he played his last six holes in 6-over-par). McGihon became the second consecutive defending champion to miss the weekend on the ensuing year. It happened to Pate at Rancho Santa Fe in 2000. Three others who finished in the top five a year ago also crashed and burned after 2001's Friday — Mark Etue, John Mallinger and Darin Sullivan.
What happened in the third round was easy to describe: almost everyone but Merrick, who fashioned a 70 on Saturday, went the wrong direction. It left the eventual champion with a three-stroke cushion heading into the final round.
One other who was able to take advantage of the situation, albeit briefly, was Fresno's Jonathon Echols (a SCGA member at San Clemente). He carded one of only four 68s shot for the tournament and improved his spot by five stokes. Sunday, though, he shot himself out of contention with a front nine 40. Echols later won the stroke play qualifying portion of the NCGA Amateur by three strokes.
Johnson positioned himself for a challenge by rallying with two birdies and an eagle over his last four holes but he needed all of that to finish at even par for the third round. After a double bogey at the par-3 seventh, Johnson pumped his drive on the 11th hole into the rugged hillside. Dropping out to a dirt service road, he save bogey from there.
Mena's fortunes were less shiny; he skied to a 78. Pate kept going the wrong direction with a 76 (even after eagling the first hole, a par four that was drivable for long hitters). Alex Kuyumjian gave USC some additional representation with a sparkling 67, joining a group at 215 (a stroke behind Echols and Johnson) that included Pate and Jones.
So on Sunday, it was, as they say, Merrick's tournament to win. That's exactly what he did, keeping everyone except his Bruin teammate at bay by missing only three fairways and four greens all day for his 69.
The win surprised neither the winner nor the runner-up. "The whole thing was my attitude," Merrick said afterward. "I felt like that wherever I hit it, I was going to make par."
Johnson agreed. "When John gets it going, he doesn't miss," he informed the assembled media. "He's got a lot of confidence and a great swing. Golf's a pretty easy game when have both of those."