John Merrick never allowed himself to think about winning at Riviera.
Not when he was a kid attending his local PGA Tour event. Not when he was at UCLA and could play the fabled course. And certainly not late Sunday afternoon in a playoff when he faced a daunting 3-iron shot under a row of eucalyptus trees, and his opponent was in the middle of the fairway with a wedge in his hand.
No wonder Merrick was at a loss for words when he won the Northern Trust Open.
"Yeah, you dream," Merrick said, his eyes still glossy. "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."
Merrick hit the perfect shot under the trees on the 18th to escape with par, and he followed with another flawless shot to a skinny section of the 10th green on the second playoff hole to 18 feet. He made another par, and won when Charlie Beljan missed a 5-foot par putt.
It was the second straight year the Northern Trust Open was decided in a playoff on the 10th, a diabolical par 4 at 315 yards that requires skill and strategy, a hole where players are happy to walk off with par. Beljan made bogey twice on the 10th, once in a regulation and then when the tournament was on the line.
He went long and left both times, and in the playoff, his chip didn't quite reach the green and he took three putts from 70 feet.
"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."
Beljan, famous for having an anxiety attack when he won at Disney late last year, holed an 18-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole, similar to the theatrics provided last year by Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley, to close with a 4-under 67 and wind up in a playoff.
Merrick, who grew up in Long Beach, had a number of big breaks on the back nine. None was bigger than his second shot on the par-5 17th headed toward the trees, only to find that he had just enough of a gap to go for the green and make par. He had a 69 and finished on 11-under 273.
He also hit the trees with his tee shot on the 15th, and while it left him a hybrid to reach the green, it could have gone anywhere.
"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."
Such are the breaks it takes to win, and for Merrick, it was a long time coming. He won in his 169th start on the PGA Tour, earned another trip to the Masters and is virtually assured to qualifying for his first World Golf Championship next month at Doral.
Fredrik Jacobson missed a 4-foot par putt on the 18th hole that would have put the Swede in a playoff. He wound up with a 69 and tied for third with Charl Schwartzel (70) and Bill Haas (73), who also had chances to win at different stages in their rounds.
The final round contained far more drama than anyone imagined at the start of the day, when Haas had a three-shot lead. Six players were separated by one shot going into the final hour at Riviera, and it easily could have been a repeat of that six-man playoff in 2001 in the cold rain.
This pleasant day of bright sunshine brought a few cloudy moments.
Hunter Mahan was tied for the lead after a 30-foot birdie on the 14th, only to drop four shots on the last four holes. Nothing stung worse than the par-5 17th, where he three-putted from about 30 feet for bogey. He wound up with a 69. Jacobson was tied for the lead when he missed an 8-foot birdie attempt on the 17th, and then badly pulled a 4-foot par putt on the last hole and missed out on the playoff. The Swede closed with a 69, and bristled when asked about the final hole.
"You want me to touch that one, only that one? I cannot speak about something else?" he said, before eventually conceding, "The last putt wasn't very good."
No one was more disgusted than Schwartzel, the former Masters champion. One shot out of the lead, he missed a 10-foot birdie putt on the par-3 16th, and then three-putted the 17th, missing a 6-footer for birdie. He closed with a 70 and tied for third, his seventh straight finish in the top five around the world.
Haas faded much sooner. He made five bogeys in a seven-hole stretch in the middle of his round, and his birdie-birdie finish allowed him to tie for third.
"Positives to be taken, but overall, you don't get this many opportunities," Haas said. "A three-shot lead at one of the best tournaments of the year is a great opportunity that I squandered."
Haas looked to be in good position to join Mickelson, Mike Weir, Corey Pavin and Ben Hogan as the only back-to-back winners at Riviera. And when he dropped in a 30-foot birdie putt on the third hole, he looked as though he would be tough to catch.
Instead of running away from the field, he let everyone back into the tournament. Haas made back-to-back bogeys late on the front nine, and his lead was down to one when he made the turn. It all began to take shape at No. 10, the hole where a year ago Haas holed a 45-foot birdie putt to win in a playoff.
Merrick laid up on the short par 4, and his wedge was inches from tumbling into a front bunker when it checked up on the fringe. He made birdie from just inside 15 feet and tied Haas for the lead.
Haas went just through the green and rolled down a slope into the rough, and from there he pitched too strong and into the bunker. He failed to get up-and-down and made bogey to fall out of the lead for the first time all day, and he never caught up. His tee shots sailed into the trees and into the rough, and he was out of the picture.
Beljan's only bogey in the final round was on the 10th hole. He was flawless the rest of the way, until coming to the 10th hole in a playoff with the tournament on the line.
"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."