The hardest shot in golf down the stretch in a tournament isn’t the long bunker shot or the towering drive; it isn’t the curling downhill putt or the finesse chip.
No. The hardest shot to make yourself hit under pressure is the layup, the iron shot to the fat part of the fairway when the green is tempting you like a mistress. You know that you are one perfectly struck shot away from glory; you know that the crowd wants to see you pull out the driver and go for it; you know that if you pull off the big shot, it will make all the television highlights.
You can’t imagine the pressure that comes with trying to win for the first time. It doesn’t matter if it’s your club championship, a member-guest or the Northern Trust Open, the biggest obstacle to winning is always your own emotions.
That is what makes the par John Merrick made on the short par-four 10th at Riviera to win the playoff over Charlie Beljan such a teachable moment. Merrick could have hit driver there. The hole is only 315 yards long. He could have threaded a tee shot onto the front portion of the green and had a two-putt birdie and a chance at eagle.
But Merrick grew up in Long Beach and had been coming to the L.A. Open since he was a boy. He had also played many rounds at Riviera during his days at nearby UCLA. So he understood that the smart play was to take an iron off the tee and lay up to the fat part of the fairway left of the green.
There was no drama in that shot. It wasn’t going to make any highlights. No one would ever talk about the layup long iron.
Of course, some layups make history. David Toms hit a layup on the last hole of the 2001 PGA Championship to win. So did Payne Stewart at the 1999 U.S. Open. Both were tough decisions. If they hadn’t worked out, those guys would have been criticized forever. But they were the right shots under the circumstances, as history proved.
Merrick’s shot was a slightly easier call because the 10th at Riviera is a tough short hole to drive.
As it turned out, Merrick’s long iron landed perfectly. He was able to spin a wedge on the right tier of green and two-putt for a par while Beljan, who went with the driver from the tee, couldn’t hit the green with his second shot and failed to get up and down.
Confidence and calmness come in a lot of forms, especially when you’re trying to win for the first time. Merrick’s confidence came through his familiarity with Riviera and the fact that was playing so close to home.
His experience on that golf course and the comfort he had playing in front of family and friends, gave him the confidence he needed to pull out an iron on the 10th tee and make a par on a hole where par is often good enough.
It won’t get any votes for shot of the year, but if you want to learn something from the new Northern Trust Open champion, remember that there is nothing wrong with hitting a quality layup. In fact, it is sometimes the hardest shot in golf.
J.C. Wright is the head golf professional at Southern Dunes Golf Club in Maricopa, Arizona