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Merrick Packs Bag for Summer

UCLA player, a local golf fixture, is heading for national events after competing this weekend in SCGA Amateur Championship.

June 27, 2003|Peter Yoon | Times Staff Writer

As John Merrick contemplates his future in golf, one thing is clear: He needs to branch out.

A successful golfer on the local scene since his days as a teenager growing up in Long Beach, Merrick, a senior-to-be at UCLA, has begun thinking about bigger things. National things.

That's why the Southern California Golf Assn. Amateur Championship this weekend at Torrey Pines Golf Course in La Jolla is probably his last hurrah on the local scene.

"When I finished up the year [at UCLA], I started thinking about my future," Merrick said. "I wanted to set my goals a little higher. I needed to get out and play on the national scene and play against the best, week in and week out, and see how my game holds up."

Merrick's schedule includes a lot of tournaments hardly recognized outside the golf world: the Northeast Amateur, the Scratch Players Championship, the Pacific Northwest Amateur, the Porter Cup and the Western Amateur.

Even so, Merrick knows they constitute his ticket to the Walker Cup, basically a Ryder Cup for amateurs. .

"He's very hungry to have a lot of success," UCLA Coach O.D. Vincent said. "It's something that most golfers go through at this stage in their career.

"I feel that he should be playing against the best players in the country, and he feels the same way."

Merrick could leave the local scene with a bang because he has done well in the SCGA Amateur. Two years ago, he won it at La Jolla Country Club. Last year at El Caballero Country Club in Tarzana, he made it to a playoff before bowing out against Nico Bollini of USC.

Merrick also has won the last two Long Beach City titles, but he won't defend this year, opting instead for a six-week trip to some of the most prestigious national amateur tournaments.

"It's going to be a grind," Merrick said. "It's going to test my will and nerve, being out on the road -- not to mention my golf game. Usually, I play a tournament, then come back home and prepare for the next one. This summer I'm playing week after week."

Merrick is 27th in the Golfweek national amateur rankings. He qualified for the U.S. Amateur Championships four consecutive years. Last year, he was second in the stroke-play portion and advanced to the second round of match play. Last fall, he was invited to play in a Walker Cup practice session.

But practice sessions aren't what interest Merrick.

"It might be a pretty far-fetched goal," he acknowledged. "I know you can't just breeze onto the team. I need some good finishes this summer, but I might as well give it a shot. The Walker Cup only comes around every two years, so this is probably my last shot."

This season at UCLA, Merrick improved steadily. He finished in the top 10 four times in the last eight tournaments. He averaged 71.80 -- 69.8 in his final three tournaments.

Merrick posted his career highlight at the Pacific 10 Championships in April.

In the final round, Merrick eagled the last two holes, shot a course-record 63 and won by 10 shots over Ricky Barnes of Arizona, the 2002 U.S. Amateur champion.

But although that victory was against a national-caliber field, fate would have it that it took place at Oakmont Country Club in Glendale.

It had to be in Southern California.

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SCGA Amateur

*--* What: Southern California Golf Assn. Amateur Championship, a 72-hole stroke-play tournament When: Today-Sunday, play beginning at 7 a.m. each day Where: Torrey Pines Golf Course, La Jolla Who: 84 of the top amateur golfers in Southern California, among them four-time SCGA champion Craig Steinberg, 2000 U.S. Mid-Amateur champion Greg Puga, 1996 U.S. Amateur Public Links champion Tim Hogarth, 1998 California Amateur champion Ed Cuff, 2001 SCGA champion John Merrick, 2000 SCGA champion Scott McGhion and defending champion Nico Bollini Last year: Bollini eagled the second hole of a playoff, defeating Merrick and Mike Lavery for the title

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