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Local boy John Merrick made good last year at Riviera

Ben Hogan won at Riviera Country Club. So did Byron Nelson and Sam Snead too, all before the Dodgers or Lakers ever showed up here. This is the week when Los Angeles shares its cherished course with the PGA Tour, and all that history and tradition generally matters little to the traveling circus.

On Sunday, the golfers will pack their bags and head to the Arizona desert, another tournament in the books, another weekend of work done.

It isn't like that for John Merrick. He grew up in Long Beach, went to UCLA, then moved back to Long Beach.

So, about a month ago, after one of his Long Beach friends became a member at Riviera, Merrick joined him for a round.

"I just kind of got goose bumps again," Merrick said.

Not just because it was his old course, the one he played all the time at UCLA. Merrick won the Northern Trust Open at Riviera last year, becoming the first player from Los Angeles County to win an event that dates to 1926.

This year's edition of the Northern Trust Open starts Thursday. Jimmy Walker, who won last week in Pebble Beach, is trying to become the first player to win four PGA Tour events so early in a season since Johnny Miller in 1974.

Justin Rose, who won the U.S. Open last year, makes his 2014 debut here. England's Rose, at No. 5 the highest-ranked player among the Northern Trust field, has not competed this season because of shoulder tendinitis.

Kevin Stadler, whose father, Craig, won this event in 1996, also is in the field. Kevin Stadler, a USC graduate, won his first PGA Tour event two weeks ago in the Phoenix Open.

The field also includes 20-year-old Jordan Spieth, the 2013 PGA Tour rookie of the year, plus 2013 NCAA champion Max Homa of Valencia, and Fred Couples, 54, who won the event in 1990 and 1992 and is entered here for a record 32nd time.

As Merrick tries to become the first player to win the tournament in consecutive years since Phil Mickelson did it five years ago, he can lean on his memories of a year ago. He won on the second hole of a playoff, at the 10th hole, followed by the embrace of his wife and two kids.

When he and his friend visited Riviera a month ago, Merrick played the course, but he insists he did not try to re-create that playoff moment when he got to the 10th hole.

"Just kind of reminiscing a little bit on the green," he said. "Just kind of enjoying the moment."

Little wonder, because Merrick has yet to win any other tournaments, at Riviera or elsewhere.

Merrick, 31, turned pro in 2004. He has played in 194 events, with that one victory to show for it.

"I won the tournament and, yeah, it was a little overwhelming for a while," he said.

The thought that last year's Northern Trust might be a career turning point vanished quickly. In his next tournament, Merrick missed the cut. In the six events that followed the Northern Trust, he missed the cut three times and finished no higher than 45th in the others.

In the 25 events he has played since winning here last year, he has finished in the top 15 once.

"That was my first win out here and, you know, I guess the expectations come along with that," he said. "Maybe it's just personal rather than everyone else, but I expected to play a little bit better after the win last year."

Merrick laughed off the idea that he used his sociology major at UCLA to keep himself thinking positive thoughts among the struggles. "I pretty much majored in golf at school," he said.

He did try an economics class.

"I think I got a D in the class," he said. "My excuse was, we missed so much [with] golf … Sociology was a good pick in the end."

He might not have put the student in "student-athlete," but he made the most of his college days by virtue of his UCLA golf experience. After all, you don't need a degree in economics to know that $8 million in career earnings is pretty impressive.

"I enjoyed sociology. It was a very interesting major. It wasn't the most challenging major," Merrick said, laughing. "But UCLA is a very competitive school academically and athletically, and you needed to pick where you were going to spend most of your time.

"I spent a little bit more time on the golf course. Yeah, not putting that degree to use right now."

bill.shaikin@latimes.com

Twitter: @BillShaikin

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