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

January 15, 1988|BRIAN HEWITT | Times Staff Writer

Watson vividly recalls the precise moment he knew he was about to win his first major. It happened on the 70th hole of the 1977 Masters. He was tied with Jack Nicklaus at the time. His "three-quarter" five-iron inhaled the flagstick at Augusta National's par-3 16th.

"It's hard to describe," Watson says now. "But when I hit that shot, all of a sudden all the pressure just flushed out of me. Ssshheeww. It was like a feeling of calm in the eye of a storm. I wish that feeling would recur a little more."

Watson says he had that feeling again on the first tee of the final round of last summer's Open. Simpson, meanwhile, was still trying to convince the assembled sporting media that he was sincere in his insistence that he was just happy to have survived the 36-hole cut.

With 18 holes to play, he trailed Watson by a shot. And Joe Simpson liked his son's chances. He and Scott had played Olympic the previous November. Scott had shot even par, and he had done it effortlessly. The elder Simpson had correctly guessed that Olympic would be murder on long hitters because of its narrow, tree-lined fairways and a preponderance of doglegs positioned between 250 and 270 yards from the tee. If the long driver hit it straight, Joe Simpson figured, he would drive through the fairway and take himself out of the hole.

"The golf course was made for Scott," he said. Scott knew it, too.

But he was still fighting the tour myth that says players who have "been there" before during the final round have a huge advantage over those who haven't.

"The final round of the Open is a lot more about courage than it is about skill," Watson said after the third round.

Maybe courage wasn't what helped Simpson win the California state juniors at age 15. And maybe courage had nothing to do with Simpson's struggle with a balky putter at windy Albuquerque in 1976, when he won the first of his two NCAA championships.

New Mexico State's golf coach, Herb Wimberly, the NCAA tournament chairman that year, was all set to award the medalist trophy to another player when USC Coach Stan Wood had to remind him that the quiet Simpson needed a par on the final hole to finish first.

"No!" said an astonished Wimberly. Wood was less surprised when Simpson drained a 20-footer for birdie to win by two shots.

The next year, at Colgate in Hamilton, N.Y., Simpson overcame near-freezing temperatures in June to win again. A pattern was emerging: Every time Simpson won anything that meant anything, he did so under adverse conditions. And the pattern resurfaced in 1980 when Simpson won his first PGA event, the Western Open, at monstrous Butler National outside Chicago.

An agronomical nightmare had ruined Butler's greens in the weeks leading up to the tournament. By the time the pros arrived, there was nothing but dirt where greens had once been. Simpson had learned to play at San Diego's Stardust Golf Club, where the greens had occasionally browned out in a similar fashion. No sweat. He shot four rounds of par or better and won easily. At age 24, with less than two full years of tour experience, he had won one of the PGA's most prestigious events on one of its three or four toughest tracks.

His next tour win was in 1984 at Westchester, where temperatures reached record highs and wilting humidity turned the course into a hothouse. Then last spring he won his third professional tournament at cold, windy, rainy, sleety Greensboro.

The U.S. Open, of course, doesn't need the elements or course conditions to make it difficult. By definition, Simpson says, "it's an adverse tournament."

Watson is still somewhat at a loss to explain how Simpson conquered Olympic and history on the final nine holes that Sunday. But he insists he wasn't surprised. "When Scott gets on a roll, he hardly ever misses a shot," Watson says.

Simpson also has a hard time explaining precisely where he got this almost Kiplingesque ability to keep his head when others around him are losing theirs.

"Maybe my basic nature is to handle things intellectually and not so much emotionally," he says. "So when it gets tougher, I'm better able to adapt my game."

Stability is another important puzzle piece. He married his Madison High School sweetheart, with whom he attended USC. They have two young children and, according to Simpson, have never had a "major" (there's that word again) argument. "Cheryl's my best friend," he says.

They were both above-average students at USC. And both avoided most of the distractions of "The House," a rambling off-campus structure located on Van Ness Street in a deteriorating portion of the Wilshire neighborhood.

It was not a fraternity in the Greek sense, but it was where most of the golfers lived. Tour player Craig Stadler, two years ahead of Simpson at USC, furnished "The House" for $100 after visiting a nearby flea market. And Stadler's father set up golf nets inside. But on Saturday nights, the nets served little purpose. Simpson remembers one such evening when certain of the tenants became overserved.

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