Ask Scott Simpson how winning the U.S. Open last year has affected him, and it doesn't take long for him to say, "Not much, really." One change is that after nine consistent but mostly anonymous years on the PGA Tour—the result, in part, of his habit of wearing a visor pulled so far down on his head that little more than a black mustache is visible—Simpson has had to get used to being recognized, even when his rugged features and graying temples are in full view.
"It has surprised me, but it's been great," says Simpson, 32, in the unembellished vocabulary, calm tone and deliberate cadence that reflect his personality. But let's not get carried away. For every person who, over the past 12 months, has mistaken him for a sexy TV star—"Gee, he looks kind of like Tom Selleck," a woman in the gallery at the Memorial Tournament whispered to her companion—many more golf fans have confused him with another Simpson, Tim, who's also on the Tour.
Scott takes it all in with the same wide, slightly bemused smile with which he acknowledged the mile of putts he sank over the final nine holes at the Olympic Club in San Francisco last June to win the Open by one stroke over Tom Watson. And his expression doesn't change when he's asked how he felt about being portrayed by much, of the media, including a certain national sports magazine, as the spoiler who turned Watson's Cinderella comeback into the "Dread Scott Affair."
"It didn't bother me at all," says Simpson. "Most people appreciated me and the way I won, and the fact that I played one stroke better than Tom Watson. As for the media, I think they tend to get more focused on the superstars and their not winning than the public does. I was just thrilled to win the Open, even if nobody else was."
June 19, 1988
One person who was as thrilled as Simpson was his father, Joe, who is a crack amateur golfer. Immobilized with a ruptured disc, Joe had to watch the tournament on television while lying flat on his back in his San Diego home. But when his son won, Joe, a 58-year-old retired elementary school teacher, shot up from his bed and screamed. First with joy. Then with pain. A few days later, he experienced half that reaction again when he read in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED that "on a thrill scale [Simpson] ranks just behind Edwin Meese and slightly ahead of a tuna sandwich."
"I found that very unfair," says Joe. The article prompted him to write the magazine a letter, which said, in part: "Scott has loved golf since I started him playing at 10 years old. Scott has always considered the U.S. Open to be the one tournament that he'd want to win. Then when he does, he gets ridiculed in your magazine."
Scott's wife, Cheryl, says many of the congratulations she received for her husband's victory were tempered with commiseration over the press coverage. "It didn't bother me," she says. "I was there. I know Scott didn't back into it, he won it. You have a player with all kinds of good values, you would think people would want to know about him."
Simpson didn't engage in recriminations. "I don't get too worked up about articles," he says. "I just try to keep improving my game and let the other stuff take care of itself." Thanks largely to that unflappable demeanor, Simpson hasn't finished lower than 41st on the money list since his rookie year in 1979. Last year he won a whopping $621,032.
His temperament steadied him during the final round at Olympic. Simpson had come to the Open playing the best golf of his career. He had already had eight top 10 finishes in 1987 and had won the third event of his career, the Greater Greensboro Open, in April. Simpson didn't panic when he bogeyed the 3rd, 4th and 6th holes. Later he gave little more than a tentative wave to the gallery after sinking birdie putts on 14, 15 and 16. He was so involved in the moment that he looked up at a scoreboard only once all day, on his way to the 17th tee, when he had a one-shot lead.
"Olympic was one of those times when I was really able to play just one shot at a time," he says. "It's a clichè, but it's the hardest thing to do in golf. It might be colorless, but if you're emotional on the golf course, you're in trouble. Other than that, I only remember making all those putts."
For those who like Open contenders to agonize, Simpson's placidity hardly seemed fair. While Watson was wearing new creases into his brow trying to break a three-year victory drought, Simpson was content to be playing so well. "I wanted to win, but I wouldn't have been depressed if I hadn't," he says. "Finishing second, third or fourth still would have been great playing."
Simpson doesn't measure his success in life by how many golf tournaments he wins. Since becoming a Christian in 1984, Simpson unabashedly states that "God is Number 1, my wife and family are Number 2, and golf is Number 3." He never spends more than two weeks apart from Cheryl and their two young children, daughter Brea, 5, and son Sean, 1. "I try to make all my moments important," says Simpson, who continues to reside in San Diego.
Rich internal lives often seem externally dull, but Simpson is considered anything but by some of the Tour's livelier personalities. He often engages fellow player, and noted mystic, Mac O'Grady in long philosophical discussions. "Scott is one of the most open-minded guys out here," says O'Grady. "He likes new ideas." Simpson and the extroverted Peter Jacobsen are also frequent companions at rock concerts. "I'll always be a rock 'n' roller," says Simpson, who at 13 gave up the trumpet, which his father plays professionally, to devote more time to golf.
Scott and his brother, Dave, younger by a year and now an accountant, began playing at San Diego's Stardust Golf Club after Joe gave the boys a set of clubs to share. Joe assigned the even-numbered clubs to Dave and the odd numbers to Scott. Scott developed an upright action that features a long swing with little wrist cock. It produces drives that are short and straight (despite his 6'2", 180-pound frame, Simpson was 177th of 188 pros in average driving distance last year) and iron shots that rarely dazzle with backspin when they land on the green. Nothing spectacular, but as Watson said after the Open, "When Scott gets on a roll, he hardly ever misses a shot."
"I don't make many birdies, but I've always been good at making a lot of pars and avoiding bogeys," says Simpson. "I don't hit it in trouble too often.... You hear a lot about positive thinking, but there is a power of negative thinking, too. It's why you put a seat belt on, and why you aim away from the out of bounds and don't go after every pin."
Simpson won 27 junior tournaments in the San Diego area, which is rich in golfing talent. At 15 he won the California Junior championship, and at 16 was runner-up to Bob Byman in the 1972 USGA Junior. Back then he was hardly the model of serenity on the course that he is today. "I stayed pretty cool most of the time, but when I did get mad, I'd just erupt," he says. "I'd break clubs, throw my bag, generally act like a jerk. It may not look like it, but I still fight my temper. I'm a perfectionist, but there is no way to play perfect golf."
Off the course Simpson was a good student and dutiful son, even though a rebel within him was screaming to get out. "I was rebellious in my ideas, if not my actions," he says. "I would have loved to have grown up in a more rebellious period, grown my hair long, demonstrated, but I figured I was about four years behind all the good stuff."
While at USC he won the NCAA individual championship in 1976 and '77, and he was noted for his ability to outeat his hefty teammate, Craig Stadler, without gaining a pound. Still, as bright as his golf future looked, Simpson exercised his powers of negative thinking by earning a bachelor's degree in business administration. He almost had to use it when he missed qualifying for the Tour in two consecutive attempts.
"That was my low point," says Simpson. "I thought I might never amount to anything as far as golf was concerned." He made it on his third try, in the fall of 1978. Two years later, at 24, Simpson won the Western Open on the tough Butler National, outside Chicago.
Simpson had yet to become a paragon of self-control. Larry Nelson, now one of his close friends, remembers Simpson missing a short chip on the last hole of the 1980 Andy Williams-San Diego Open and flinging his wedge at his bag. The only problem was, the club missed its target and hit Nelson in the leg. Says Nelson, "If I hadn't been a Christian, we might have had a problem."
At the time Simpson had not yet become a Christian. "I was an agnostic," he says. "To me, Christianity seemed like a crutch. I thought it meant that you had to give up all your intellectual reasoning and just believe. Besides, I had seen a lot of Christian hypocrites, and they had really turned me off."
But his natural curiosity led him to attend Bible study meetings with his boyhood friend and fellow pro, Morris Hatalsky. The first meeting he attended focused on Christ as the shepherd and His followers as His flock. Afterward, Scott asked Hatalsky, "You mean, your goal in life is to be a sheep?" Even though Simpson was skeptical, he kept going back. "For three years," he recalls, "I asked every question you could think of, like 'Why do the innocent suffer?' Gradually the answers started making some sense. I don't believe in Christianity just to play better golf, which has been implied. I don't think I won the U.S. Open because God wanted me to. I think I won it because I hit good golf shots."
Simpson hasn't hit as many good shots this year as he did in '87. He hasn't had a top 10 finish, and going into this week's Open at The Country Club, in Brookline, Mass., he was 86th on the money list. "My expectations for myself went up after I won the Open," he says, "and I think I've tried too hard. It's also been my busiest year off the course."
Although Simpson hasn't yet made the $1 million in outside income some say winning the Open automatically generates, he has done all right. His agent, Rocky Hambric, of Cornerstone Sports in Dallas, says Simpson has chosen to seek long-term rather than short-term remuneration. The demand for Simpson to play tournaments overseas increased considerably, and his fee for such appearances went from $15,000 to $35,000, while his price for a one-day corporate outing rose from $3,500 to $10,000. He also renegotiated three-year contracts with Aureus, a clothing manufacturer, and Yamaha, the club maker he endorses.
Simpson has gotten used to wearing the mantle of the Open champion. "I don't wake up in the middle of the night wondering if I really won," he says. But his primary goal at The Country Club will be the same one he had last year at Olympic—make the cut. "Sure, it's possible that I could win again," says Simpson, "but very, very improbable." Indeed, the last player to win back-to-back U.S. Opens was Ben Hogan in 1950 and '51.
Looking ahead is against Simpson's nature. So is looking back, which is why he cracks his bemused smile when he's asked how he would like to be remembered. "As a good guy," he says. "I don't think I will be one of the great players of all time, but I'd like to be remembered as one of the good players. And the U.S. Open champ, that doesn't bother me any. Just as someone most people could respect."
That's very, very probable.