Three years ago Scott Verplank was a lock to go straight to the top of professional golf. At 21 he won the 1985 Western Open, which made him the first amateur to triumph in a Tour event since Gene Littler took the San Diego Open in 1954. Verplank had already won the U.S. Amateur, and in 1986, representing Oklahoma State, he would win the NCAA championship. No wonder he was the most highly regarded amateur to turn pro since Jack Nicklaus joined the PGA Tour in 1962.

Today Verplank has made the humbling transition from golden child to rank-and-filer. And he's the latest example of how in golf no one, but no one, is ever a sure thing. "I used to be scared of Scott Verplank on the golf course," says Davis Love III. "In college, Scott was cocky, and he had this aura of being unbeatable."

The aura dissolved as soon as Verplank joined the Tour in June 1986. In 44 official events between then and the end of last year, he missed the cut 27 times. In 1987, Verplank won $19,575 to finish 177th on the money list. Last year his $34,136 put him 173rd on the list. The only thing that ranking earned him was the opportunity to attend the Tour's qualifying school (his Western Open victory had exempted him from the school for two years) to try to regain his playing card. What went wrong?

"I just wasn't ready," says Verplank. "I got caught up in massive expectations to the point where no shot was good enough, no score low enough."

Last year Verplank ranked 154th in scoring with an average of 72.38 shots per round and an even more disappointing 152nd in putting, a part of his game that once had been particularly strong. "The self-confidence just got drawn out of me," he says. Deciding he needed more distance off the tee, Verplank tried to lengthen his compact swing, but the results were predictably poor. He bottomed out when his greatest strength turned into his biggest weakness. "I always felt my mental process on the course was what had separated me from everyone else as an amateur," he says. "I feel I have a strong mind, but I started using it in a negative way."

Verplank went back to his old swing and rediscovered enough of himself to survive the qualifying school in December. "My attitude was, I need to be here," he says. "I had to re-prove to myself that I belonged." His sixth-place finish at the school will be good enough to qualify him for nearly all of this year's tournaments.

At San Diego, his fourth tournament of 1988, Verplank tied for 18th. Four weeks later, at Bay Hill, he finished tied for 15th to earn $12,375, his biggest check ever. "I wouldn't change anything that happened to me," says Verplank with the fervor of a born-again golfer. "I've got a long, long way to go and, hopefully, it will take me a long, long time to get there. I believe that everything I've gone through is only going to make me a better player."

Verplank has time on his side. He may not feel like it, but he's still the youngest player on the PGA Tour.

PHOTODAVID WALBERGOnce thought a can't-miss prospect, Scott has been in deep water.