It had been 21 years since the Olympic club in San Francisco held a U.S. Open golf championship, and with any luck, it will be 121 years before it holds another. Not that the Lake Course at Olympic, hard by the Pacific Ocean, isn't a choice piece of real estate. It's just that an Open at Olympic is about as much fun as having The Miami Herald move in across the street. It is the world's only par-70 cemetery, and bulldozed under it are some of golf's greatest players, including Ben Hogan and Arnold Palmer. Olympic hit Hogan with a skinny haystack named Jack Fleck in the 1955 Open, and Hogan was never the same. Then, in the 1966 Open, Olympic tortured Arnie with Billy Casper, who made up seven shots in the last nine holes and saw to it that the army never marched off with another major. And last week came the hat trick. Olympic slipped a Mickey in Tom Watson's comeback cocktail.
Until Watson came to Olympic, golf's Huck Finn had been seated at his own funeral. He had not won a tournament in three years, a major in five. But at Olympic, suddenly he was playing his freckles off, only to come up against a square in a groove named Scott Simpson.
Now Simpson is a decent enough player. But on the thrill scale he ranks just behind Edwin Meese and slightly ahead of a tuna sandwich. Though he had no right to, Simpson ruined Watson's longed-for coming-home soiree, partly because of an ungodly run of putting and partly because of one ungodly piece of luck. Simpson won the 1987 U.S. Open by a single shot over Watson, and so there you had it: Olympic had set up and squashed somebody flat again. How long is it until the British Open?
Do you see a trend here? Look at golf's last two major-domos: Bob Tway at the PGA and Larry Mize at the Masters, both quieter than Mafia stenographers. And now comes Simpson, a man who rarely drinks, rarely talks and rarely misses Bible study. If you sat with these three champions—Tway, Mize and Simpson—in one room, you might be able to hear your hair grow. You think that maybe without a lot of commercials to do, residuals to cash, golf courses to design and investment meetings to take, they're at the practice range more? Hmmmm.
June 28, 1987
Simpson, 31, fits the Olympic Wrong Man mold like the golf glove he doesn't wear. He is Fleck/Casper reinvented. He is not just tall and dark and unheard-of, like Fleck, he is religious, disciplined and a divine putter, like Casper. And like Fleck and Casper, he became Olympic's predestined party pooper, a cop busting up history's bash, dropping 15-footers down the stretch of what is supposed to be the chokingest tournament in the nation, all with a pulse of about 19. Simpson didn't even know he was in the lead until after the 16th hole.
And once finished, with ABC's cameras riveted on his face as Watson's putt to tie at the 18th missed by inches, Simpson smiled as though he had just scraped off a $10 winning lottery ticket. Later Simpson got really emotional. "This is probably my best year yet," he said. Grape Nehis for everybody.
Like Fleck/Casper, Simpson is not Madison Avenue. Simpson is barely Elm Street. Say, hey, USA: Meet your new Open champion. Simpson, who won the NCAA title in 1976 and '77, says the main reason he's on the Tour is to "make a living for my family," which includes his wife, Cheryl, and their two children. He had "never" fantasized as a kid about winning a U.S. Open. He says he never thought he was "good enough to win a U.S. Open." He says winning an Open "won't mean as much to me as to other guys." He doesn't feel he has gotten the recognition he deserves, "which is fine with me." And before Sunday he had no plans to play in the British Open next month because he would rather stay home and play the Hardee's Golf Classic in Coal Valley, Ill., that week to accrue points toward the $1 million Nabisco Grand Prix bonus pool. Other than that, he's an inspiration to golfers everywhere.
Like Casper, he will tithe 10% of his Open purse ($150,000) to his church. Watson, on the other hand, might consider giving 10% to a psychiatrist. Win-less since the 1984 Western Open, Watson quite nearly overcame his own jury-rigged putting stroke, his own fears and, most of all, the unwritten word.
"I've heard everything about me," says Watson. "I'm an alcoholic. I'm on drugs. I'm getting a divorce. I'm moving back to the farm. I'm firing Chuck Rubin [his agent and brother-in-law]. I've heard all the rumors." The only rumor nobody had ever heard—the only one that was true—was that he was making a comeback. And for that he could thank a psychological kick in the rear from his caddie (page 25).
Sigh. Can't you just see it? Pretend the Dread Scott Affair never happened. Pretend Simpson forgot to enter. Here's Watson, 37, putting out a two-incher on 18 while 25,000 people at Olympic give him a standing O. It's an even-par round of 70 that has held together despite three bogeys in the first five holes. It's a masterwork of patience and grit and courage, the game of golf grinning from driver to wedge, watching one of its favorite sons come back from a long illness, resplendent and glowing.
Instead, here was Simpson, comparing the U.S. Open with his last victory, the third of his career, this year's Greater Greensboro Open. "This was intense," he admitted. "But so was Greensboro." Greensboro?
Oh, it had all set up so sweetly. Just arriving at Olympic was fresh. Here was a place where the wood came in trees (30,000 of them), not railroad ties; where the rough really was; and where the greens, said a member of the greens crew, Kevin Kelly, "are like Russian newspapers. Very hard to read." So fast and San Franciscan were the greens that occasionally players lined up chips with their backs to the holes.
Mac O'Grady summed up everybody's feelings when he said, "The inclinations and topography of Olympic Club already disturb the vestibular semicircular canals of my inner-ear balancing centers." Does that mean Mac is a little dizzy? It was sort of like putting down Lombard Street. At one point, Jim Thorpe had a two-foot downhill putt, "and I was lagging." He left it short.
Strange occurrences were commonplace. On the 18th on Saturday, Tommy Nakajima, the Japanese star, hit a ball into a tree with bark and bite. If Olympic's greens weren't holding, this tree was. The ball was so stuck that even 18-year-old Kevin Moriarty, a fan, couldn't find it—and he went 40 feet straight up looking for it. Nakajima made a double bogey, taking him from two back of the leader to four. He was last seen seven shots behind and stuffing a chain saw into his bag.
And then there was Senior Open champion Dale Douglass, who wasn't acting his age. At 51, Douglass was the oldest man in the field, but was still only four strokes behind the leaders on Saturday, and this without using a cart the whole week. He finished 31st, which was 15 places better than a younger competitor, Jack Nicklaus, 47, who at 138 actually was within one shot of the second-round lead but who played the weekend in a natty 76-77. "All I want to be is 22 years old again for this one week," Nicklaus said during a practice round, but it was Watson who got younger—and rid himself of burdens—every day at old Olympic.
"You feel like you're climbing up a hill and you're on sand," Watson said in trying to describe the slump. Of course, people didn't want definitions. They wanted explanations. So they invented some, says his wife, Linda. "Pretty soon it was, 'Hey, did you hear?' Vicious, terrible things. It was rough." Watson said the rumors about him have "hurt my wife and my family," and Linda explained why. "Look," she says. "My job is to be a wife and a mother. And when you start hearing, 'Hey, I know why he's losing. He's got a lousy wife and a lousy marriage,' it doesn't make you feel very good. I had no way to defend myself."
What really happened to Watson during those three years might be that he lost his desire to beat his brains in at the Buick Opens and the Canon-Sammy Davis Jr.-Greater Hartford Classics. "Maybe it was just a matter of me growing up a little bit," said Tom. "Maybe it was a matter of me getting a little more mature. Thinking more about being a father. Not being so one-dimensional.... It's not a bad thing. But the fans don't understand it, and the press doesn't understand it, either."
Bored, Watson took five weeks off last year and never picked up a club. The rest refreshed him. "You don't know how nice it is just to change a light bulb," he said. "Usually, if Linda were to say, 'There's a light bulb missing,' I'd be saying, 'Oh well, I'll see ya. I'm going to Westchester.' "
What Watson never stopped pining for, though, were majors championships, so he set out this year with that in mind. And what do you know, if Friday didn't find him leading one, tied at three under par with another redhead, the sartorially slick Mark Wiebe, who became the first person in history to lead the Open in a designer sweatshirt. People may remember Wiebe's sweatshirt more than they remember him, after his horrendous finishing 77-79.
Watson, however, never melted, and he prepared himself for Sunday by laying his fears and hopes buck naked on the table. "I want to win when my guts are on the line, he said. When it really means something." Watson, unlike Simpson, knew that this was something worth losing sleep over. Maybe almost as much as Greensboro. "Let's face it," Watson said. "I'm nervous. I'm about to play maybe the most important round of golf in my career. I know it. You know it. You'll write it. That's the game."
Of those who chased him, Watson must have least dreaded seeing Simpson in his rearview mirror, especially with Seve Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer, Ben Crenshaw, Mize, John Mahaffey (all three back), Curtis Strange (four) and Greg Norman (seven) menacing. Even rookie Keith Clearasil, er, Clearwater, the fresh-faced pro from BYU, seemed to own more destiny than Simpson. Clearwater admitted the only things that got him to the Open at all were his wife's feet. It seems that after he won the Colonial in Fort Worth six weeks ago, he stayed out celebrating until 2:30 a.m. Qualifying for the Open meant getting up at 5 a.m. There'll be a U.S. Open next year, he said to himself. "Then I felt these big feet on my back pushing me out of bed. My wife was saying, 'You'll be watching the Open on TV and wishing you were there.' " So he not only qualified but went out Saturday and tied Rives McBee's course record of 64. Then he tripped over his own feet Sunday with a 79.
Anyway, one by one, all of them faded...except Simpson. Ballesteros, who came within one shot of the lead, couldn't keep his ball in the short grass and finally flattened under the weight of his own driver. "Someday," said Ballesteros, "they'll play without fairways. Just rough and green. Then I'm sure I will have a very good chance."
And suddenly, Watson and Simpson—history maker and history breaker—were all alone. Then again, maybe Simpson would have faded too, if the poltergeist of Fleck and Casper hadn't intervened on the 11th. It was there that Simpson sailed a bunker shot much too hard and high and, quite probably, off the edge of the green. Only the ball smacked the flag, cuddled down six feet from the hole and begged to be coaxed in for par, when surely bogey or worse had been growling. ("Well," said Watson afterward. "That's the game. I chipped in five years ago.")
Playing in the twosome ahead of Watson, Simpson jabbed first, birdieing the 14th from six feet to tie Watson for the lead at one under par, and then the 15th from 30 feet to take the lead by himself. "I pulled that putt on 15 a little bit," said Simpson, "but then the thing broke right and went dead in the hole. It was lucky." The Ghosts of Olympic be with you.
Simpson led for only a matter of seconds, as Watson, playing behind him in the final twosome, answered with a birdie at 14 to tie it again. Then Simpson holed a 15-foot birdie putt on 16—his third straight piece of putting artistry—to go one up. It was here that Simpson took his first peek at the leader board all day. "I decided not to look at the board until then because last time I did it I think it hurt me more than helped me," he said. Simpson wanted to stay with his style—plodding along, making good pars, "hitting for the middle of the green a lot of times," taking precious few chances. "When I looked, I expected to see myself ahead," Simpson said. Imagine his surprise to see a 37-year-old, washed-up ex-legend loitering one shot in arrears.
Now, admitting to the sticky breath of a six-time PGA Player of the Year on his neck, Simpson promptly hit his approach shot to 17 into a bunker. But this was where Simpson did something unexpected. He drew from history. "I thought about Fleck and Casper," he said. "The one thing I knew I had going for me was that I knew the veterans had lost two times before here. If Jack Fleck could come from behind and win, then I could do it, too."
And so Simpson blasted out to seven feet and, with Watson waiting in the fairway, made the putt. "The best putting day of my life," he said.
And now lay one last hole. From the 8th hole on, Simpson and Watson had both played Olympic in three under par. They were the only players under par for the week.
Somehow, Simpson made a routine two-iron, eight-iron, two-putt par on the short 18th—and stepped aside to watch Watson. On came Watson's pitching wedge from 105 yards, dead uphill, dead on-line...but too short. "I probably should've hit a nine-iron," Watson said. Then the 45-foot putt. Dead on-line. But three inches too short.
Watson wasn't sure whether he should collapse from success or failure. He had missed a few birdie chances—eight feet at the 7th, 10 feet at the 10th and 15 feet at the 16th—but he had persevered. "I have nothing to be ashamed about," he said. "I am disappointed, but it feels good to be in the hunt. I can feel a little of the old magic coming back. I mean, the old magic is right there."
Huck Finn wouldn't say he had returned, but his wife was happy to say it for him. "He's turned the corner. He was in there and he fought, just like the old Tom Watson. It was 1977, 1978, all over again."
For Scott Simpson the year was 1987, and he was looking at the U.S. Open trophy to confirm it. "There sure are some great names on here," he said. "It's kind of hard to believe my name is going to be on there, too."
But it will. No bigger than Fleck and Casper, no smaller than Hogan and Palmer.
Come to think of it, maybe that's what Olympic has been trying to teach us all along.