Two weeks after missing the cut at this year's Masters with a pair of 77s, Scott Verplank—America's best young amateur since Jack Nicklaus—was back among the Georgia pines. His back, in fact, was up against a Georgia pine; his ball rested on a bed of pine needles, sitting precariously on a fat twig. On a day when a strong field of college players was carving up par at Statesboro's Forest Heights Country Club, the pre-tournament favorite to win the Chris Schenkel Intercollegiate was merely whittling on his mystique.
Eyeing the 10th green through the trees, the Oklahoma State senior experimented with two or three awkward stances and finally chopped down sharply on the ball. The twig somersaulted, and the ball squirted sideways across the fairway. Disgusted, Verplank took a quick swipe at the offending twig, picked up his bag and stomped off after the ball.
"You left your Coke! You left your Coke!" a spectator called after him, pointing to a half-full cup of ice on the ground. Verplank did not look back.
The spectator turned to a friend and asked facetiously, "He's not mad, is he?"
Mad? Well, maybe not club-throwing mad. But since a rainy day last August, when he sank a six-foot playoff putt in the Chicago suburbs to win the Western Open—and become the first amateur in 31 years to take a PGA Tour event—Verplank has tried to play up to the expectations engendered by that feat. At the Schenkel, he expressed his frustration with puffed cheeks, sighs and long, soulful stares at sky and ground. This was not how he pictured the last spring of his amateur career.
"I wanted to throw my clubs in the water on the last hole," a tired and sweaty Verplank said in the clubhouse after the second round. "I turned a 67 into a 71 today on the last two holes." He shook his head. "It's no one thing. I'll hit it in the woods, and then the next three shots will be perfect." He chewed on some ice, apparently soothed by the crunching.
How, then, does Verplank assess the state of his game before the NCAA championships begin on May 28?
He grinned weakly and only half-kidding said, "Despair!"
If Verplank truly despaired, he had only to look past the Schenkel. When he turns pro in June at the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills on Long Island, N.Y., he will be the most heralded rookie since Nicklaus burst on the scene in 1962 and won the U.S. Open for his first tour victory. Verplank's fourth-place tie in last winter's MONY Tournament of Champions—he bested 25 pros who won tour events last year—suggested that he might even be pro golf's next dominant man.
"I think Verplank is as good as any player on the tour right now," says Calvin Peete. "He sort of reminds me of Johnny Miller and Lanny Wadkins and Nicklaus before they turned pro. They were pros, they just didn't carry the title."
Unquestionably, Verplank's 1985 was one of the finest years for an amateur since the days of Bobby Jones. He played in 26 events—pro, amateur and collegiate—and won 11 of them, including the Western Amateur, the Sunnehanna Amateur, the Porter Cup, his third Texas Amateur and his fourth straight LaJet/Pelz Amateur. He finished second in four tournaments and made the top 10 in 22. He was low amateur in the U.S. Open at Oakland Hills (34th), reached the quarterfinals in defense of his 1984 U.S. Amateur title and led the U.S. Walker Cup team to victory over Great Britain and Ireland, winning 3½ out of a possible four points. He was Golf Digest magazine's amateur golfer of the year for the second straight time. Golf World named him player of the year, pros included.
But the eye-opener was that. Western Open win. Butler National is one of the toughest courses on the tour, and the Western field one of the strongest. Yet Verplank led from start to finish, refusing to choke even when the media told him after the third round that he would choke, that it was expected. The progression from awed collegian to serious contender took a mere three days, as revealed in Verplank's postround press-room comments to reporters:
•First round—after a 68 made him the first amateur in six years to lead a pro tournament: "Yeah. I guess I'm surprised to be leading. That's not saying I have any chance of winning."
•Second round—after birdieing six of the last eight holes to take a three-shot lead: "Just unconscious, I guess. Obviously, things are going my way."
•Third round—after birdieing the 16th and 17th to take a two-shot lead over Jim Thorpe and seven strokes on the rest of the field: "No comment."
Verplank's gutty triumph the next day was a popular one, even though it came at the expense of gallery favorite Thorpe (who collected the $90,000 first-prize money). When Verplank dropped the winning putt on the second hole of sudden death, he rewarded the rain-soaked gallery by yelping with joy and jumping a foot in the air. "It was great for amateur golf," he said later, in a typical Verplank understatement.
The only quibble was the now familiar refrain that while he is obviously overflowing with talent, he lacks color. At 5'9" and 160 pounds, Verplank performed no Bunyanesque feats a la Davis Love III, the long-driving tour rookie. Verplank hit his irons with white-bread accuracy and bored fans on the practice tee with a compact but hardly lyrical swing. Equipment freaks noted that his putter has an unusually built-up grip; medical mavens were fascinated to discover that he is a diabetic and requires daily injections of insulin (though he bristles when asked to talk about that subject). Otherwise, Verplank's only eccentricity seemed to be his habit of doing radio interviews while chewing ice, which drove the sound engineers wild.
But bland? Maybe, maybe not. Verplank plays with tight-lipped concentration, following his shots with narrowed eyes. At the Tournament of Champions he failed to acknowledge cheers as he walked up the 18th fairway on the last day. At the Western, he treated the press tent as if it were a courtroom, giving short, carefully weighed answers to reporters' questions. The next Nicklaus? More like the next Hogan.
"I think I got a bum rap about that," Verplank says now. "You're leading a golf tournament, you don't want to think about anything negative"—this in reference to one reporter's "choke" question—"and the guy said, 'I don't want to sound negative, but....' And he told me I was going to choke. It kind of irritated me that the guy brought it up."
By clamming up, Verplank got tagged, unfairly he insists, as uncooperative. "One writer in Dallas said I'm a 22-handicap interview, and he's never even talked to me. I don't think that's fair." With an embarrassed smile, Verplank adds, "I'm not Fuzzy Zoeller, either. I realize that. But when you're playing in amateur tournaments there are only a hundred people on the last hole, not 20,000, and they're not clapping as you walk up the fairway."
Verplank is learning how to handle both situations. Between glamour events like the Masters, the Tournament Players Championship and the Byron Nelson Classic, Verplank squeezed in such spring tournaments as the John Burns Intercollegiate and the Stephen F. Austin, in which he carried his own lightweight nylon bag and raked his own traps. "I love playing amateur golf," he says. "You're not playing for money, you're playing for pride."
Money has never motivated Verplank. He learned his golf on the lush fairways of Dallas's Brookhaven Country Club and spent childhood summers with his grandparents at Houston's River Oaks Country Club, where that city's old money gathers. Around Stillwater, Okla. he drives a sporty white 300ZX, a gift from his parents, that echoes the white Cadillac driven in Dallas by his father, Bob, an insurance broker. When Scott hits the PGA tour he will be sponsored solely by his parents and grandparents. "It's always been a family situation," says his mother, Betty. "If we'd had to borrow from the bank, we would have."
Of course, if Verplank had turned pro after the Western, banks might be borrowing money from him by now. But Scott had several good reasons for his return to OSU. First of all, he wanted his degree. Despite missing 30 class days this year, Verplank, a business major, graduated May 10 with about a 3.5 grade average, a feat coach Mike Holder calls "more remarkable than what he did on the golf course." Second, there is unfinished business, such as next week's NCAA golf championships at Winston-Salem, N.C. Verplank wants to end his amateur career as the collegiate champion.
But most important, Verplank insists, he is playing amateur golf because he loves it. "Golf's a game," he says. "I don't ever want it to be a job."
There is no reason to doubt his sincerity. In Stillwater, the week after the Schenkel, Verplank seemed to be hanging on to the dwindling threads of college life while the outside world clamored for his attention. It was "dead week" at Oklahoma State—the week before final exams—but messages clogged his answering machine. Mail was stacked up, unanswered. "I'm just swamped," he said. "I don't have time to do all the things people want me to do."
Verplank shares an apartment at 112 North Duck Street with golf teammates Brian Watts and Kevin Whipple. Tour regular Willie Wood had the apartment when Verplank moved in three years ago. There are golf posters on the wall, and golf bags and shoes and clubs everywhere you turn. Like most college apartments, it is comfortably cluttered. "Every cup we own is right there in the sink," Verplank said. "Unwashed."
And he hated to say goodby.
"Nobody really understands that," he said, sitting in the living room, the blinds drawn against a noonday sun. "They all ask, 'Why did you turn down the money?' I try to explain that college golf has been fun. That's why I came back."
Indeed, he measures his golf in terms that any true collegian would appreciate. His assessment of his opening rounds of 72 and 68 at the Byron Nelson was typical. "Yes, I'm still in shape to win," he told reporters. "I've played better here than I have all semester." (He finished tied for seventh.)
Verplank sees the game as an essentially solitary activity, played on a challenging, grassy game board. Professional golf will be different: He will have to accommodate the crowds, reporters, television. "I think I've changed a lot already," he says.
His model will be Nicklaus, unpopular as a rookie, who won over the galleries and the media by losing weight, letting his hair grow and learning to smile and wave—even though, as Nicklaus has written, such "basically superficial" stuff shouldn't matter.
"But it does," Verplank says. "It's the entertainment business. It's something I've got to work on."
Work on it he will. "Scott's like an architect," his father says. "He draws his basic plan and follows through on it."
If it seems presumptuous for an amateur to be worrying about how he will handle success as a pro, just remember that Verplank has already tasted it and expects to taste it again. "We haven't seen much of Scott lately," says Wood, "but I'm sure we'll see a lot of him come June, and it will probably be on the leader boards."
When that happens, be prepared for a smiling, waving Scott Verplank. "The next time," he says, "maybe I'll be more comfortable on that last fairway."