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Lateral Hazard: John Merrick tames Riviera's tortuous 10th hole for first Tour win

Brian Murphy
Yahoo Sports

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John Merrick kisses the winner's trophy after winning the Northern Trust Open. (AP)

It is with a heavy heart that those of us who love the West Coast Swing, who love the crashing waves behind the seventh green at Pebble Beach, the hang gliders off the 14th green at Torrey Pines and the sound of the word "kikuya" whispered by a reverential Jim Nantz at Riviera, bid farewell to golf in the Pacific time zone.

No, the World Golf Championships Match Play starting Wednesday at Dove Mountain does not count as "West Coast Swing." That's the "Made for TV Sonoran Desert Swing." No Pacific Ocean seen, heard or felt? No West Coast Swing.

If it's got to end, however, it ended in one of the finest ways imaginable: on the 10th hole at Riviera Country Club, a vexing, tempting, wrenching, deceiving 295-yard stretch of Pacific Palisades real estate.

When John Merrick, the former L.A. Open ticket-buyer as a youngster who was born and raised in Long Beach and schooled at UCLA, fought back tears after his first PGA Tour win – a playoff sealed on the 10th hole over Charlie Beljan – you weren't sure if he was weeping from the emotion of his childhood dream fulfilled, or from the stress of playing the 10th hole at "The Riv" twice in one day.

On the losing side, Beljan didn't mince words. Assessing the drivable – and double-bogey-able – 10th hole after he failed to match Merrick's playoff par, he told reporters the only thing missing from the tester of a par-4 is a windmill. Assuming Beljan wasn't searching for alternate sources of wind energy for the 21st century, we'll assume he means the wide margin of error and narrow margin of success on the golf hole doesn't fit his eye.

[Also: Tiger Woods plays golf with vacationing President Obama]

Welcome to golf, big man. Beljan is a likable player, fun to watch with his coiled swing, monster drives and swaggering walk. But the 10th hole defeated him and others over the course of four days, even though a guy like the 6-foot-4, 215-pound Beljan stands on the tee box, looks at this little-bitty golf hole and thinks: "Shoot, this baby has eagle '2' written all over it. Caddie, hand me the large canine."

But! That's not the way to go at No. 10. Merrick played it cool. He laid up in the playoff, the better to leave himself a full lob wedge with spin into the narrow green and way-back flagstick. Beljan hit driver, and sent it left and long. It's almost impossible to get your second shot close to the hole from there, and when he was left with five testing feet for par on a tricky hole location, he slid it by.

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Merrick grew up in Long Beach and attended UCLA before turning pro. (Getty Images)

Merrick, playing tortoise when the 10th hole tempts you to play hare, felt the tears fill his eyes. In his 169th PGA Tour start, he had his first win. The 241st-ranked player in the world had a signature career moment. He was asked how he'll celebrate the win, and he laughed and said his answer was probably better for "off the record." Drinks, family and friends at his Long Beach home, he finally said, would be his immediate plan.

I think he should celebrate at Riviera, and wait for nightfall, then go out and play the 10th hole again, in the dark, with his buddies and some brews. Once more, with feeling. After all, it's the hole that proved the difference in his first Tour title. He played it calmly and under control for four days, and went birdie-par-par-birdie in the first four rounds, before his playoff par. So, that's playing No. 10 in 2-under golf over five tries. Merrick called his strategy on No. 10 a "microcosm" of how he plays Riviera.

By contrast, Beljan's fortunes swung at No. 10. He went birdie-bogey-birdie-bogey over the four rounds, and then made bogey in the playoff. So, that's playing No. 10 in 1-over golf over five tries. I ain't Stephen Hawking, but there's a pretty direct scoring correlation between No. 10's seemingly benign charms, and the difference between victory and second place. Even Bill Haas, who had the three-shot 54-hole lead, and won last year at Riviera in a playoff at No. 10 by laying up, made bogey at No. 10 on Sunday.

Off they go, the best players in the world, leaving the West Coast behind for another year. We've had Tiger at Torrey, Phil in Phoenix, Brandt at Pebble, and now we've had No. 10 at Riviera reign supreme again. It's neat that a local boy with maximum respect for the hole's history and ghosts was the one to tame it. Raise the beer bottle high with your friends, John Merrick: a toast – to the 10th hole, to Riviera and to triumph.

SCORECARD OF THE WEEK

(No results available) – Tiger Woods and President Barack Obama, Sunday game, The Floridian Golf Club, Palm City, Fla.

Holy power duo, Batman. And I'm not talking about El Tigre and El Prez. I'm talking about Floridian Golf Club owner and Houston Astros owner Jim Crane and U.S. trade representative Ron Kirk – the two guys who filled out Obama and Tiger's foursome. You know when you have juice? When Tiger and the POTUS let you fill out their fourball.

[Also: Kangaroos delay Women's Australian Open]

Credit to the Golf Channel's Tim Rosaforte for breaking the story, and setting social media abuzz. White House reporters who follow Obama had no clue of the story, proving that Rosaforte, in golf-writing circles, has Crane-Kirk-level juice.

Crane might have more swag than either the world's No. 2-ranked golfer and No. 1-ranked Oval Office resident. Just two weeks ago, he organized a charity fundraiser at The Floridian that featured three little-known chops named Palmer, Player and Nicklaus. Crane came on my radio show on San Francisco's KNBR when we broadcast from Pebble Beach, and he barely spoke above a whisper. I couldn't help but think of an old maxim about speaking softly and carrying a gigantic portfolio.

The only blemish on the guy's résumé is that his baseball team, the Astros, might be the worst professional sports organization in North America. Crane assured me he's rebuilding the farm system, and the Astros won't be patsies for long. That's good, because their current payroll is so low, I heard that at the turn Sunday, Tiger bought a turkey sandwich, a Gatorade and half of the Astros roster.

And Obama, what sports moves this guy has. He recently had LeBron James to play hoops at the White House. Now, he's teeing it up with Tiger – after getting lessons from Butch Harmon on Saturday, no less. Harmon reported that Obama congratulated Tiger on his Torrey Pines win, and told him "It's good to see you playing well again." I'm sure Tiger nodded and smiled, all the while thinking: "So glad I live in Florida, with no state income tax. Cause you are killing my tax bracket, dude."

What a sports junkie our 44th Commander-in-Chief is. The guy gave the State of the Union address a week ago, and the thought bubble above his head might have read: "As soon as I finish this speech, next on my agenda is to catch some passes from Tom Brady and take B.P. off Justin Verlander."

MULLIGAN OF THE WEEK

Actually, if Obama wants to get with the Next Big Thing, he should schedule a round with Lydia Ko.

The 15-year-old phenom who is laying waste to all other hyped prodigies was at it again over the weekend, playing her way into the final group at the LPGA Australian Open – all the while wearing bifocals that make her look like a character from a Harry Potter novel.

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Lydia Ko finished third at the Australian Women's Golf Open. (Getty Images)

When Ko made it to the final pairing with Jiyai Shin in Canberra on Sunday, she was bidding for her fourth (!) professional win. In January of 2012, she became the youngest player, male or female, to win a pro event with victory at the New South Wales Open. Then, later in 2012, she became the youngest to ever win an LPGA event with her win at the Canadian Open. She won the New Zealand Women's Open just a week ago for the trifecta.

[Also: Rory, Tiger have hot player right on their tails]

Now, playing in an event that made news this week for both a kangaroo delay (true story) and a qualifier playing through a black widow bite (true story), Ko was ready to steal the headlines again.

Except … she pulled her opening tee shot left, way left. Her second shot attempted to clear some trees, but struck Australian bark and ricocheted directly back towards her – and past her, for negative yardage. Lydia Ko, for one brief moment, was just like you and me, golf fan.

If the golf ball could talk, it would have said, as it zoomed past her: "You think this game is easy, kid? I've got a lifetime of pain for you. Now, go put some One Direction on your iPod and take up backgammon."

Ko double-bogeyed the hole, Shin won the event, and Ko shot 76 en route to third place. And, as Ko said afterward: "Third in a professional event is a pretty good result." The kid speaks truisms.

But, for the sake of history, and maybe a fourth (!) pro win at age 15, let's go back to the first tee, let Lydia Ko re-tee, start over and … give that bespectacled teenager a mulligan!

BROADCAST MOMENT OF THE WEEK

"See you at Augusta!" – Jim Nantz, CBS, signing off from Riviera after John Merrick's win.

I can't deny it. Like MSNBC's Chris Matthews watching a 2008 Obama campaign speech, I felt a tingle in my thigh when Nantz said that.

CBS' next golf broadcast is the 2013 Masters, and the storylines will be amazing: Rory, Tiger, Phil, you name it. And while I know the East Coast is having some rough February weather, lately in Northern California it's been splendid out, with clear skies and sunset coming just a little bit later each day. Springtime is in the offing, and the Masters is only a little more than seven weeks away.

I had to choose this as the B.M.O.W., though David Feherty, as usual, proffered several candidates. At the 10th hole, assessing Charl Schwartzel lying greenside in two, he said: "He could make a three, or a six … you could hurt yourself thinking about what could happen from here."

And when the team discussed Charlie Beljan's admirable openness about his battle with anxiety, and what measures he was taking to combat it, Feherty dryly opined: "Change of career might help."

WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?

Here comes the WGC Match Play, an event that always is packed with buzz and thrills the first two or three days, then seems lonely and adrift by the final match. It starts Wednesday, with only Brandt Snedeker (rib injury) and Phil Mickelson (kids' vacations) opting out from the top 10.

The first days, with 32 matches on Wednesday, and 16 matches on Thursday, are a flurry of bracket-watching and upsets, of quick camera switches from one climactic match to the next. Then, by Sunday, when it's the final two, it feels eerily quiet, like the two players left are the only guys who didn't get the memo that the party is over, and it's time to pack up.

That is, unless Lydia Ko or Jim Crane are hanging around. Wherever they go, the party never stops.

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