John Merrick doesn't remember the year he first came to Riviera as a fan, though his memories from his days down the street at UCLA are vivid.
He was wrapped up in rain gear, standing behind the ropes about 10 feet away from Robert Allenby when he laced a 3-wood to about 5 feet away from a back left pin on the 18th hole to win a record six-man playoff in 2001. He was there when Mike Weir overcame a seven-shot deficit in 2003 and won in a playoff.
Merrick created a fresh batch of memories on Sunday, the best kind.
On the course he once dreamed of playing as a pro, Merrick took advantage of a good bounce off a eucalyptus tree, a fortunate break between two trees and a clutch shot with a 3-iron he punched under the trees. Finally, it was a wedge with no room for error that stayed on the 10th green for a par that ultimately gave him his first PGA Tour win Sunday in the Northern Trust Open.
Merrick's voice choked with emotion as he stood on the 10th green, and his eyes remained glassy even after his first PGA Tour victory began to sink in. The 30-year-old who grew up in Long Beach could think of no better place to win than Riviera, which he called his favorite course.
"Yeah, you dream," Merrick said after beating Charlie Beljan on the second extra playoff hole. "When you're alone sometimes, you think about different scenarios of winning tournaments. It was fun. We would always play here at UCLA and have great games out here. To be able to play the tournament was a dream of mine. But to win? I can't describe it. It's so much fun."
It also was a lot of stress, especially for Beljan when the playoff headed to the 10th hole.
At only 315 yards, no other par 4 that short commands so much respect. It requires skill and strategy, and Beljan hasn't quite figured it out. He handled the 18th hole far better, making an 18-foot birdie putt in regulation for a 4-under 67, matching the low score of the final round. And he made a 6-foot putt in a playoff to stay alive.
But, oh, that 10th.
He again hit driver over the green. His chip didn't quite make it to the putting surface. From 70 feet, he putted to 5 feet above the hole and missed.
Just like that, the tournament was over.
"I think you could play here 10,000 times and still not know how to play No. 10," he said. "Eighteen is a great golf hole. I just find it tough that we go to No. 10 to play a playoff hole. I think it's a great hole, don't get me wrong. I'm not knocking it. But it's just a tough hole to have a playoff on. We might as well go and put a windmill out there and hit some putts."
Merrick figured it out far better. He recalls making a mess of the 10th his rookie year, and the fruitless attempts at trying to drive the green. He has learned to lay up and give himself the right angle into the green, and it was that kind of play in regulation that led to a 15-foot birdie that gave him a share of the lead.
Merrick led by as many two shots on the back nine before nerves took over, though he steadied himself. He made a 25-foot par putt on the 14th hole to stay tied for the lead, and the first big break came on the next tee shot. It hit a tree and was headed for trouble, only this one dropped down in a place that gave him a long, but open, shot to the green. He escaped with par.
"You give me 100 balls off that tee, I'm not going to be there in that spot," Merrick said. "I just hit a bad tee shot and was able to make par there."
Tied with Fredrik Jacobson on the par-5 17th, Merrick hit his second shot from a fairway bunker to the left toward more trees and figured he was in trouble. Just his luck, he had just enough of a gap between two trees that he could go at the green, and he got another par. One last par at the 18th gave him a 69 for 11-under 273, and a spot in the playoff with Beljan.
His troubles weren't over. Beljan, a bit hitter, smashed his drive down the middle. Merrick missed to the right, the one place a player can't afford to be because of the eucalyptus trees that block a clear shot to the green. With a 3-iron, he hit a low cut that ran up to and through the green, leaving him a reasonable chance to make par.
"I saw Charlie there right in the middle of the fairway and I'm like, 'Oh, man, this is not looking good.' Yeah, I was able to putt it off there," he said. "It worked out."
Merrick took it from there, winning in his 169th start on tour.
This put him at No. 4 in the FedEx Cup standings, sure to get him in his first World Golf Championship next month at Doral. He returns to the Masters, and will start his season in Hawaii next year at the Tournament of Champions.
Beljan, famous for his anxiety attack when he won at Disney last year, needed a win to get in the Masters. That weighed on him, though he went up to No. 64 in the world and has four more tournaments to try to crack the top 50.
"I made every clutch putt that you would ever ask to make," Beljan said. "And then to make that putt on 18 and hear the roar was really special. Obviously, not the way I wanted to end it, but you know what? You win some, you lose some, and that's how it goes."
He was not alone in his misery.
Bill Haas had a three-shot lead to start the final round, made five bogeys in a seven-hole stretch in the middle of his round, and two birdies at the end was just for show. He closed with a 73 and tied for third.
"A three-shot lead at one of the best tournaments of the year is a great opportunity that I squandered," he said.
Hunter Mahan was tied for the lead with a big birdie on the 14th, and then dropped four shots on the last four holes. Jacobson was tied for the lead playing the 18th, chipped down to 4 feet and his par putt to get into the playoff missed to the left.
Charl Schwartzel, one of six players within one shot of the lead over the final hour, missed birdie putts of 10 feet on No. 16 and 6 feet on No. 17. He finished one behind.
In the end, it was Merrick posing with the trophy. He only allowed himself to dream about playing as a pro at Riviera. This was better. He won.