John Merrick was a young face in the crowd at Riviera for so many years, dreaming of one day playing the fabled course on the PGA Tour.
On Sunday, he did better than that. He won on it.
Merrick hit two clutch shots that led to two pars in a sudden-death playoff and won the Northern Trust Open on Sunday when Charlie Beljan missed a 5-foot par putt on the second extra hole.
Merrick, who closed with a 2-under 69, became only the ninth player make this tournament his first PGA Tour victory. It could not have come at a better place. Merrick grew up in Long Beach, attended this event as a kid and went to school down the street at UCLA.
“I can’t put this into words,” he said off the 10th green, his eyes welling with tears. “Growing up as a kid, coming out here, I just wanted to play this tournament.”
It was a tough finish for Beljan, famous for having an anxiety attack when he won at Disney late last year. He holed an 18-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole, similar to the theatrics provided last year by Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley, to close with a 4-under 67 and wind up in a playoff.
He had to make a tough 6-foot putt for par on No. 18 on the first playoff hole. Going to the par-4 10th, 315 yards of sheer nerves, Beljan drove long and left, and his chip didn’t reach the green. He putted his third shot just above the hole, and watched it slide by on the left for a bogey.
Beljan also made bogey on the 10th hole in regulation.
The key for Merrick might have been on the par-5 17th in regulation, when he pulled his second shot from a bunker toward the eucalyptus trees, only to find that he had just enough of a gap to go at the green and escape with par.
More great recoveries followed in the playoffs. He was well to the right of the 18th fairway, and hit a hard punch shot that rolled just over the back of the green and allowed him to get up-and-down for par. On the second hole, the dangerous 10th, he laid up too far to the right — nothing short of a perfectly struck wedge could stay on the green, and he pulled it off, the ball settling 18 feet away. A few inches longer and it would have tumbled into the back bunker.
Merrick, who finished on 11-under 273, moved to No. 4 in the FedEx Cup and is virtually assured of qualifying for his first World Golf Championship next month at Doral.
Fredrik Jacobson missed a 4-foot par putt on the 18th hole that would have put the Swede in a playoff. He wound up with a 69 and tied for third with Charl Schwartzel (70) and Bill Haas (73).