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A match made on the links

First-time opponents at 1952 golf championship become longtime friends

Champion Digital | By Jennifer Gunnels

The year was 1952. The NCAA men’s golf championship was underway in Lafayette, Ind., and the oppressive Midwestern summer humidity had been draining a competitive field packed with future professionals all week.

As the final two competitors met on the morning of June 28 for the championship match, temperatures soared to 104. Jim Vickers of Oklahoma and LSU’s Eddie Merrins met for the first time at the tee box that day, little knowing that a friendship was beginning that would endure for the next 60 years.

They were the self-proclaimed “littlest guys in the field,” but they had outlasted the likes of Don January and Ken Venturi, both of whom went on to win majors professionally, to compete in the individual championship match.

“It was hot as the devil that day in Lafayette,” Merrins remembered. “It had been hot all week. I started that week at 145 pounds and ended at 130.”

Merrins was a sophomore at LSU, the first in the school’s history to receive a golf scholarship. At 19, he was a team captain and one of the youngest in the field.

Vickers was thrilled to be representing the storied Oklahoma golf team and was on the hunt for his school’s first national title.

“We had both won difficult semifinal matches the day before,” Vickers said. “I had played 38 holes and I think Eddie had played about 35.”

Dripping in the summer heat, the men traded the lead throughout the round. Neither golfer ever gained more than a one-stroke advantage over the other.Although the men had competed against one another before, they had never actually met. As they shook hands and teed off, they began a story they can still tell in great detail today.

It was on the 15th hole, a par 4, that Vickers forged a 1-stroke lead he would maintain. Although Merrins was in decent position to putt for a tie on the par-5 18th, Vickers sank a long putt to clinch the title. The putt was reported at the time to be around 15 feet, although Merrins insists the putt lengthens with each telling of the story.

“That putt has grown in length every year, like a big catch on a fishing trip,” he laughed.

Vickers claimed Oklahoma’s first and only individual national championship that day, but both men say, more importantly, they won a great friendship.

“We embraced and had a good cry together when it was over,” Merrins said. “We’d both played our hearts out that day. It’s not often you get the chance to play for a national championship, so it’s great memories whether you win or lose.”

Both men went on to have successful playing careers, Merrins at the professional level and Vickers on the amateur circuit.

Merrins turned pro in 1957 and would play in several major tournaments, competing in more than 200 events in his 50-year professional career. In 1975, he became the head men’s golf coach at UCLA, guiding his squads to 12 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, including a national team title in 1988.

“The experience I had playing at LSU left great memories for me, and I wanted to help the young men at UCLA enjoy that same experience of going to college and getting to compete in a sport you love,” Merrins said.

Merrins was three times named the Pac-10 Coach of the Year while at UCLA and coached seven current PGA Tour players there, including Corey Pavin and Duffy Waldorf. As the head pro at the Bel-Air Country Club in Los Angeles, Merrins continues to teach the game through private lessons. His students have included notable golf names like Vijay Singh and Ben Crenshaw, as well as stars in other spheres like Jerry Rice, Jack Nicholson and Ringo Starr.

“I gain more satisfaction now out of teaching than playing,” Merrins said. “When you coach, you get to see others succeed, and it’s a different kind of satisfaction. It’s a matter of giving rather than receiving, and in the end it’s the giving that’s more satisfying.”

While Vickers never went pro, he met with great success at the amateur level, winning the Colorado Amateur in back-to-back years, as well as the Kansas Amateur and three World Senior Golf Championships.

“When I came out of school there wasn’t any reason to play professionally,” Vickers said. “Back then if you were playing professionally, you were out driving to your tournaments in a station wagon that was pulling a trailer and you probably had your wife and baby in the car with you.”

Vickers qualified for two U.S. Opens and competed in the 1966 Masters. He was runner-up to Joe Conrad in the Trans-Mississippi Golf Championship in 1953. While he worked professionally in the family oil business, golf continued to be his great love.

“I relish the amateur game. Everything I ever wanted to do in the game of golf, I was able to do,” he said.

One of eight children, Vickers began playing the game in sixth grade when his father directed him and his four brothers to the sport. All five Vickers brothers excelled at the game, at one time having a combined 9 handicap among them.

“We’d caddy in the mornings and play nine holes in the afternoons,” Vickers remembered. “It’s been a life of love with the game of golf for me. Many, many friends have come from playing golf.”

Vickers has served as a director for the Trans-Mississippi Golf Association for nearly 60 years. The Trans-Miss conducts three prestigious annual golf tournaments and provides scholarships at 18 schools for young people interested in pursuing careers in the golf industry.

After that memorable 1952 collegiate championship match on a scorching Indiana day, Vickers and Merrins continued to run into each other at tournaments and other events in the golf community. With such an important piece of shared history, the pair gravitated toward one another and their friendship grew.

When Merrins and his UCLA Bruins overcame a 13-stroke deficit on the final day of competition to capture the 1988 NCAA golf championship, Vickers’ alma mater Oklahoma was the victim of the epic comeback. The following year, Merrins’ last as the UCLA head coach, Vickers’ beloved Sooners captured the title. They still enjoy ribbing each other about it the way friendly competitors do.

Vickers now lives in Indian Wells, Calif., less than 150 miles from the Bel-Air Country Club where Merrins recently celebrated his 50th anniversary as the head professional. Vickers was asked to speak at the event (it was also a celebration of Merrins’ 80th birthday), and he told the story of that 1952 championship and the start of their long friendship to the great delight of family and friends.

“I was fortunate to win many golf tournaments in my career, but that one was the most special,” Vickers said. “I was honored to compete against Eddie and he’s been a terrific friend since that day.”