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HE PLAYS IT STRAIGHT : Scott Simpson Keeps Game and Life in Line

January 15, 1988|BRIAN HEWITT | Times Staff Writer

CARLSBAD — The U.S. Open champion used to catch cockroaches barehanded in "The House" at USC, after which he would stick them in a microwave and watch them explode.

The U.S. Open champion used to play the trumpet for Ozzie's Marching Chargers at halftime in San Diego's old Balboa Stadium.

The U.S. Open champion was once so skeptical of religion that his father later called him an atheist. And he agreed.

Not many people know those things about Scott Simpson. Not that many people outside the PGA Tour know that Simpson is the U.S. Open champion. Too many people inside the tour think Simpson is, well, uninteresting. And that's unfortunate.

Know this:

Simpson is the slow-walking, slow-talking, slow-swinging son of two San Diego schoolteachers, and he birdied 14, 15 and 16 on the final round at San Francisco's Olympic Club last June to snatch the Open away from Tom Watson.

Since late 1986, when he stopped trying to be longer off the tee than his swing permitted, he has patiently worked the bugs out of his game. Since he quit playing the trumpet at age 13, he has steadfastly refused to blow his own horn. And since he started getting answers to his tough questions, he has steadily increased his personal investment in a religious commitment that began only after extensive and scholarly research.

"The fact that Christianity might help me deal with problems on the tour has never been good enough for me," he says. "I used to reject religion for just that reason. You can say all the prayers you want. But the guy that hits the ball the best--that's the guy that's going to win. I still believe that."

Last year, Simpson won two tournaments and $621,032. Only three players won more money; only two won more PGA events. "It doesn't get much better than that," is the way Dan Stojak puts it. Stojak is Simpson's caddy of eight years. And he is thrilled about the promise of the 1988 season, which began for Simpson with a one-over-par 73 Thursday in the opening round of the MONY Tournament of Champions at Rancho La Costa.

When Stojak and Simpson limped onto Olympic for their first practice round the week of the Open, both had forgotten why they been looking forward to that tournament and that course. "He was hooking it all over," Stojak says. "I thought I'd be in Reno by the weekend."

But by the end of the week, Simpson had ascended to what tour spiritualist Mac O'Grady calls the "first subculture of golf." At 31, Simpson had won his first major championship. Golf sages say it will be much easier for him to win his next one. They say he will be able to draw upon the experience of Olympic if and when he gets that close again. But Simpson says there were no major epiphanies on the last nine holes.

"The big difference was I just putted so good," he says.

Golf, at its highest level, often reduces itself to nothing more than that. "When you're putting good and you know it, you can't wait to get to the golf course," says Lee Trevino.

And Simpson knew it. "I haven't been able to duplicate that putting stroke since then," he says. "And I doubt I ever will."

A bunker explosion on 11 that rustled the flag and almost dropped in the hole didn't hurt Simpson either. Nor did Watson's approach on 18, a shot that checked up and settled on the edge of the fringe. Watson needed the putt to win. He didn't make it.

Simpson's father, Joe, an accomplished Southern California amateur golfer, watched Watson's miss on the bedroom television of his Kearny Mesa home. He was flat on his back with a ruptured disc. When Watson failed, Joe Simpson screamed out in a mixture of pain and joy. Out in the living room where Simpson's mother, Char, was entertaining friends, there were tears. It was Father's Day.

Soon Simpson was telling ABC announcer Al Trautwig and a national television audience that he hadn't expected to win. He told Joe Simpson, through the camera, that he loved him. But mostly he was numb. Only much later was he able to sort out what he had achieved and how it might affect his career.

"Until you win a major, there are always questions and doubts as to whether you can really do it," he says. "There are a lot of great players who have never won a major. And I think in that respect, if I do play well, and get in contention again, I can draw upon Olympic and stay calm and know that it's possible."

The financial rewards were more immediate. First place was worth $150,000. Appearance fees doubled instantly. Aureus, a clothing manufacturer, rushed to sign Simpson to a three-year contract. And when his contract with Yamaha expired at the end of last year, the company that makes Simpson's golf equipment made him an offer he couldn't refuse.

"I'm getting a lot more money than I would if I hadn't won the Open," Simpson says simply.

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