The Library

How I Helped Scott Simpson Win the U.S. Open and other observations on the Ancient and Democratic Game of Golf
By Donald Johns

You may not believe this, but I helped Scott Simpson win the 1987 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club.

I bought a season pass for the tournament(a whopping $125) and haunted the grounds from Monday through Sunday,discovering anew the pleasures of being there. I went alone, of necessity. To most of my friends, the idea of attending a golf tournament just doesn't compute.

They tend to see golf as a low-energy, thrill-free, rich man's domain. You might say they're stuck on a stereotype. Try as she may, my wife remains puzzled by my habit of following the PGA Tour on the tube, a practice she wryly calls "watching Republicans take each other's money." To no avail are my protests that at least three or four certified Democrats are known to play the Tour on a semi-regular basis.

I picked up the spectating habit early, as a kid watching the old Lucky International Tour event at Harding Park, the once-proud muni course across Lake Merced from the Olympic Club. There I spied Byron Nelson and Jimmy Demaret giving tips to younger golfers. I saw the youthful Gary Player, sporting flattop with fenders and entertaining fans at the practice green with his Elvis impersonation. I felt Arnie's ball glance off my leg when he overshot a par three (he graciously inquired after everyone's health). I watched burly Mike Souchak, big George Bayer, and steady Dow Finsterwald play off fairways today's pros would consider ground under repair. I followed quiet Don January in 1964 as he played through heavy rain, chipping the ball over casual water on the saturated greens. January lost an 18-hole Monday playoff that year to young Chi Chi Rodriguez, who snared the winner's check for $7500. Golf was different then.

This year they're using the Harding Park course as a parking lot, and Open tickets are not to be found. I sent in my application but lost out in the lottery. I'll catch most of it on TV, and maybe I'll haul out the tapes of '87. That year I went early every day, parking down the street where the California State Registered Landmark 19 sign commemorates the Broderick-Terry duel. In 1859, U.S. Senator David C. Broderick and State Supreme Court Chief Justice David S. Terry fought the last legal duel in California, next to what is now the fifth green at the exclusive San Francisco Golf Club. It's a layout that rivals the best anywhere, according to those who've had the luck to play it - or see it (it's so insulated hardly anyone knows it's there).

I do my playing occasionally, on less glamorous courses mostly, usually at dawn or after the twilight rate kicks in. A few times a year my pal Danboy (Fresno's finest) and I (from a city by the Bay) meet near Monterey to play Poppy Hills, San Juan Oaks, or Pacific Grove. What is lacking in frequency is made up in the pleasure of anticipation and in the occasional birdie, the shot struck true, recollected in tranquillity. We also follow the game in all its nuances, taping tournament broadcasts to scan late at night, or perusing back issues of Golf World to see if Peter Teravainen has made the cut in some European or Asian event. Once or twice a year we journey far to see the experts in action, as we did a few months back when we drove several hundred miles to take in one day of the Nissan LA Open.

Attending a tournament solo can yield adventures and insights, and certainly surprises. At Olympic in '87, I wandered in through a gate off John Muir Drive on the back nine and followed anyone I wanted to, from the exalted to the obscure. Some of the younger pros I saw that year, like Jay Don Blake, Keith Clearwater, and Mark Calcavecchia, went on to enjoy some success.

On Thursday, I saw a youthful Jose Maria Olazabal struggling at several over par after his first eight holes. When he rallied to make the cut, it occurred to me that the kid might have a future. During a practice round, I followed three struggling veterans, none of whom could manage to strike the ball with any consistency. Two of them, Denis Watson and Gary Koch, never made it back. The third, Hale Irwin, sure did.

There were other quiet, instructive moments. One was watching Jack Nicklaus failing Saturday to muscle the ball out the rough left of the second hole. Prior to the shot, a gallery member offered him a periscope, the better to glimpse the green. After a brief but penetrating stare punctuated by a tight smile, the Bear replied, "I'm fine, thanks."

Another moment was happening on Mark McCumber in the woods between one and two. Steadying himself by singing a Beatles tune ("Oh, Darlin'"), McCumber politely asked the few spectators to move back, stepped up and threaded a five-iron through a gap about as wide as a cart path. Then there was Craig Stadler, to a fan who complimented him on an excellent drive from the 17th tee Saturday: "It really doesn't make any difference." I followed Watson for several holes on Thursday, when he looked like anything but a contender. He was struggling with his game, and as I followed him on 16, I became aware that a man and a woman behind me were discussing Tom. The man was talking about how much Tom had contributed to the game, and the woman was telling him how much Tom needed to hear that, particularly since his inability to make putts and win tournaments at age 37 was making him miserable. I looked around to see Linda Watson, Tom's spouse, and Sandy Tatum, the former president and longtime maven of the USGA.

Golf galleries are like that. You're likely to see people you know are somebody, even if you can't immediately place them. Also following Watson that day was a balding, distinguished looking gentleman with a small radio affixed to his ear. Turned out to be Giants' owner Bob Lurie, glued to the broadcast. The oft-maligned Lurie was, as it turned out, a fan at base. (The Giants took their division that year, only to fall to the Cardinals in the playoffs.)

I was pulling for Jim Thorpe, a classic Open-style player, who played with Nicklaus Saturday. Thorpe rarely excelled on the easier tour courses, where birdies abounded, but give him a tough track and he was ready for the test. I noticed that most of the relatively few African Americans in the gallery followed Thorpe, as they had followed Thorpe and Calvin Peete in practice rounds. Thorpe played with Nicklaus Saturday and stayed in contention until the back nine Sunday. Sad to say, Thorpe was battling the wrist injury that would soon require surgery and effectively end his regular days on tour.

Sunday, as always, was the day it all shook out. Watson had surged to the fore on Friday with a dream round of 65 (one off the course record) that materialized out of nowhere. He held steady Saturday and was paired Sunday with Clearwater, who on Saturday had tied Rives McBee's 1966 record 64, and was a pretty certain bet to come a cropper playing in the last group with Watson. Teeing off second to last was the interesting tandem of Lenny Clements, another Open-type journeyman, and Scott Simpson, a 31-year-old journeyman who cut a handsome figure but sported an odd, mechanical swing and walked, as a friend of mine said, "like he forgot to take the hanger out of his shirt."

Nicklaus had said that the course favored a "plodder," an unspectacular player capable of hitting fairways and greens and racking up pars.

Simpson fit the description about as well as anyone near the lead, so I was giving him a pretty close look. Before tee-off, I watched both Watson and Simpson practice. Watson, on the driving range, drew a large crowd of spectators, media folk, and even fellow golfers. Simpson I found alone on the putting green with his caddie, grooving his stroke (his instrument was a TaylorMade TPA XVIII, Watson's a Ping Pal). I watched for several minutes, tempted to say something like, "It's your day, Scott," but from fear of jinxing him I drifted back out to the course.

Out there, Craig Stadler was making some early noise, with a quick eagle and birdie, but he soon fell back. Watson would go the other way, squandering strokes early by yipping short putts as he had Saturday, only to recover with some remarkable play. As at all major championships, the day featured both spectacular achievements and puzzling disappointments.

At one point I watched Mac O'Grady and Tommy Nakajima tee off on 16 and then turned around to spy Ben Crenshaw and Larry Mize (the reigning Masters champion) studying their approaches in the adjacent tenth fairway. Both players ran the ball into the open green, British Open-style, Mize to five feet, then Crenshaw to four. Both made their birdies and moved into a four-way tie at level par with Simpson and Watson. They couldn't keep pace, of course, and only Simpson and Watson broke par for 72 holes. Other contenders fared worse. Gary Hallberg started the day four back at two over. He finished the day with an 85 (48 on the back side). Leaving the 16th tee, he devoured a banana and flung the peel against a tree, his wife trudging behind with the heavy bag.

Earlier, I watched Mac O'Grady stride down the first fairway as an original thinker shouted, "It's your day, Mac!" O'Grady smiled and glanced skyward through the fog. Later, I saw O'Grady come to the fifteenth green at even par, needing a 20-foot birdie putt to tie for the lead. He missed that putt, then missed a comebacker of four feet. Later, O'Grady said that he felt his chances were so good mid-round Sunday that he almost cried on the course. The intensity O'Grady that felt is etched on the faces of all the players, even the quipsters like Trevino and Zoeller (both of whom missed the cut).

The atmosphere was captured best by George Plimpton in The Bogey Man. In a moment of martini-induced illumination, Plimpton glimpsed that "the exercise of the game itself in top competition was an ugly combination of tension and frustration, broken only occasionally by a pleasant surprise, but more often by disaster." O'Grady found his disaster on the 15th green, followed by his drive on 16, which he yanked into the trees on the left, effectively ending his chances. He went on to finish four over par, seven back of the winner.

It was on the 16th, by the way, that I did my good deed for Scott Simpson. If you look at the ABC tape, you'll see that Simpson pushed his drive into the right rough. The tape won't show it conclusively, because the camera is blocked by low-hanging trees, but I was standing there as Simpson's drive skidded through the rough, I noticed three or four picnickers sitting on the grass, oblivious to the Titleist Tour Balata headed their way. I shouted a warning, they rolled aside, and Simpson's ball gained several extra yards of roll. Had those celebrants remained in place and stopped the ball's progress, I believe the trees would have made it difficult for Simpson to work the ball far enough down the fairway for an effective third shot. As it happened, he hit wedge into the green, the ball bouncing on the apron just over and between traps, stopping about 15 feet from the cup. On the ABC broadcast, Nicklaus can be heard to chortle, "I never thought of playing it that way."

Simpson sank the putt for a birdie to go three under, just as Watson was birdying fifteen to go two under. On 17, Simpson negotiated a spectacular sand save, with a six-foot knee-knocker for par. With a par at 18, he left Watson needing a birdie to force a playoff. Watson, who had also saved par with a treacherous putt on 17, drove into good position for a wedge to the hole. But his ball landed short and spun back to rest against the tall grass, leaving a tough thirty footer for the tie. Gamely, he gave it a whack that was just a smidgen shy of the necessary force. The ball stopped a few inches from the cup, and Scott Simpson had won the U.S. Open. Watson, like Palmer and Hogan before him, had come up short at Olympic.

When Watson's ball stopped short, I glimpsed it through a gap in the trees from far above the amphitheater green. Running up a service road from 17, my backpack flapping, kneeling in front of an ABC trailer, it was the best I could do. But it was plenty good enough. Watson had played well--better than well--and no doubt most fans with a sense of the game's history and his place in it were pulling for him. But the yips that had kept him winless for the three years prior to the Open, and which were to plague him till the present, left him in too deep a hole. To be sure, he possessed that "certain cold toughness of mind" and "absorption of will" deemed indispensable by Plimpton. But an even par 70 on Sunday and two-under 278 for the week were not enough. Simpson, who attributed his calm disposition to his Christian faith, caught a break in being paired with San Diego buddy Clements on Sunday. But he played a back nine for the ages, birdying 14, 15, and 16. He played a textbook Olympic Open, and he deserved to win.

Anyone who doubts the worth of Simpson's achievement, or the measure of the Lake Course at Olympic, should have a glance at the first page of the final leaderboard. There, you'll find Simpson (-3) and Watson (-2) followed by Ballesteros (+2), Langer, Strange, Crenshaw, and Mize (all at +3). No one steals a win at Olympic.

This year I'll be just another couch potato, unless some tickets fall into my lap. If you have extras yourself, you just might see me and Danboy, lurking around the entrance to Olympic, hoping that someone can be persuaded to part with practice-round passes, at least, for face value. You'll recognize us by our lean and hungry look, the look of the dawn-patroller and the sundowner, the veteran who's seen it all but wouldn't mind another glimpse.

Liberty Golf Package
Dates: April 1, 2018 - October 31, 2018
3 Night Stay in a Two-Bedroom Condo 4 Rounds of Golf at Harbor Links
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