The discovery should have closed his throat or made his heart
skip or perhaps left him curled up in the fetal position. Scott
Verplank, however, is not as young and uptight as he used to be.
So when he logged onto the Internet in his hotel room late
Friday night and learned that he would be grouped with Tiger
Woods the next day at the Memorial in Dublin, Ohio, Verplank,
36, who had never played with Woods, adopted what he thought was
the ideal mind-set for taming Tiger: excited but not nervous,
challenged but not intimidated. "I was fired up," Verplank said.
"The last time I played in a tournament with Tiger was in Dallas
[last month at the Byron Nelson Classic]. I was in a playoff,
and he finished third. What did I have to be scared about?"
Verplank, who was six under par and three shots off the lead at
the Memorial, shot 72-76 on the weekend to finish two under and
in 24th place. Woods, who was two off the lead, shot 68-66 to
finish 17 under and win by a tournament-record seven strokes. It
was his third consecutive victory at the Memorial and his fifth
win (in six tournaments) this year. Verplank's sentiments on
Friday notwithstanding, he and every other competitor will have
plenty of reasons to be afraid when the U.S. Open starts on June
14 at Southern Hills in Tulsa. Woods proved again last week that
when he's on top of his game, the world is his golf course.
Everyone else is only playing on it.
Wannabe Open champions can take solace in the fact that Southern
Hills, with its sharp doglegs, claustrophobic fairways and
bermuda rough, will not permit Woods to unleash his power as
effectively as he did last week. When Jack Nicklaus designed
Muirfield Village Golf Course, home to the Memorial, he bogarted
many characteristics from the ultimate Tiger track, Augusta
National, especially in the par-5s. Nicklaus refers to
Muirfield's four par-5s as "par-4-and-a-halves," so naturally
Woods treated them like par-3-and-a-halves. He had three eagles
on those four holes and played them in a total of 14 under par.
Woods effectively ended the tournament on Sunday on the first of
the par-5s, the 527-yard 5th, where from 249 yards out he stiffed
a two-iron to six feet only moments after Paul Azinger had dunked
his approach in the water. Azinger had come to that hole with a
one-shot lead, but after he made bogey and Woods dropped his
putt, Azinger was two shots in arrears, and he never threatened
again. "His caddie [Steve Williams] told me that on Thursday
[Tiger] hit that green from 265 yards with a two-iron," said
Azinger, who tied Sergio Garcia for second in the Memorial. "If I
have 265, brother, I can't get there with a three-wood. That's a
pretty nice advantage for him."
June 10, 2001
Woods conceded on Sunday that his length won't be quite so
advantageous at the Open. He has an intelligent game plan,
however, and boundless ability to implement it. "You have to
shape the ball more on that course to work it around the
doglegs," he said. "Once you're in the fairway, you can decide
whether you want to be aggressive or play it safe, but the most
important thing is to put it in play."
Woods may be, as Azinger called him, "the most dominant athlete
in the history of sports," but can't anyone else here play this
game? One thing's for sure: If we're putting out an APB for other
Open contenders, we'll need to round up new suspects. David Duval
and Phil Mickelson have faltered on too many Sundays to be
considered genuine threats. Davis Love III is battling a back
injury that prevented him from competing at the Memorial. Colin
Montgomerie, who missed the cut at the Masters, is suffering
through the worst slump of his career. Garcia, who notched his
first PGA Tour win three weeks ago, might be the biggest threat
to Woods in the long run, but his daring, imaginative style isn't
suited to Southern Hills.
Perhaps it's time for a steady, somewhat obscure player to pry
open Woods's stranglehold on the game. Joe Durant, who has won
twice this year and leads the Tour in driving accuracy, is one
such candidate, although at the Memorial he missed his third
straight cut. Frank Lickliter, who got his first win two weeks
ago at the Kemper Open, also fits the profile, but he's not
exactly Job in the patience department. Jim Furyk, a six-time
winner and two-time Ryder Cupper, is having another fine season,
which includes a victory at the Mercedes Championships and a
sixth-place finish at the Masters. Were it not for Woods, Furyk
would appear primed for his first major win.
It's tempting to put top putters like Brad Faxon and Loren
Roberts in the hunt as well, but at the U.S. Open, more than at
any other major, a player's performance on the greens depends
largely on the quality of his ball striking. "I don't see a guy
with a phenomenal putting week making the difference," two-time
U.S. Open champ Lee Janzen says. "If you're putting from above
the hole all week, it doesn't matter how good you are, you're not
going to win." Janzen also knows from experience the importance
of having the right frame of mind: "You have to play with a
peacefulness. Adversity is going to come your way no matter what.
The important thing is not to let it affect you."
If the tournament turns on the players' capacity to maintain
grace in adversity, Verplank may well be the man to take on the
Man. When he was nine, he was found to have Type I diabetes,
which required him to be vigilant about his diet and to give
himself three insulin injections a day. For many years he avoided
talking about the condition--first because he was embarrassed,
later because he didn't want people to think he was making
excuses when he played poorly. "Often his diabetes was a factor
in his performance, but he bent over backward not to talk about
it," says Mike Holder, who coached Verplank at Oklahoma State.
Holder recalls several occasions when a wobbly Verplank asked him
during a match to rush to the clubhouse and bring him something
sweet to eat or drink.
Still, Verplank put together an extraordinary amateur career. He
won the U.S. Amateur in 1984, and two years later he won the NCAA
championship. In between those triumphs, he became the first
amateur in 29 years to win a PGA Tour event when he won the 1985
Western Open, beating Jim Thorpe in a playoff. In 1988, his third
year as a pro, Verplank won the Buick Open, and after finishing
31st on the money list that season, he seemed destined for
In early 1991, however, bone spurs in his right elbow began to
bother him. Instead of resting, Verplank tried to grind his way
through the injury. The result was a humiliating stretch the rest
of the year when he missed 24 straight cuts. "I'm the world's
worst quitter," he says. "Normally that's a good thing, but at
that time it wasn't."
Verplank had arthroscopic surgery in November 1991 and resumed
playing four months later. When the elbow degenerated further, he
had major surgery in November '92. That sidelined him for 14
Verplank's elbow ailments were as frustrating as they were
painful, but they gave him a more mature perspective. In July
1992, when he couldn't swing a club, he and his wife, Kim, had
their first child. "Golf used to come first with Scott, so we had
to reanalyze that," Kim says. The Verplanks now have three
kids--Scottie, 8; Hannah, 6; and Emma, 3. Twice last month Scott
left for tournaments on Tuesday night instead of Monday so he
could watch Scottie and Hannah perform in school plays.
Verplank's career was derailed a second time in 1996, this time
by tendinitis in his left elbow, which also required surgery.
Still a lousy quitter, he eventually put together a breakout
season, in 1998, finishing 18th on the money list and winning the
Tour's Comeback Player of the Year award. The most important
moment in his renaissance came in December 1999, when he agreed
to try out a new device that pumps insulin through a tube into
his stomach 24 hours a day. The pump looks much like a pager. His
health is better, and so is his golf: Last year Verplank made
$1.7 million and finished 22nd on the money list, and last
August, a mere 12 years and 27 days after his last Tour victory,
he won the Reno-Tahoe Open in a playoff against Jean Van de
Velde. It was the fourth-longest span between wins in PGA Tour
When it comes to diabetes, Verplank is still reluctant to wear
his heart on his sleeve, but he has no qualms about wearing his
pancreas on his belt. "I could keep the insulin pump in my
pocket, but I want people to see it," he says. "It's a tough
disease, especially for kids. I want them to see that it's not
impossible to live with."
Verplank already has four top five finishes this year and has
missed only two cuts in 14 events. Like Durant, Furyk and
Lickliter, he isn't long off the tee, but he excels in those two
areas that will be critical at Southern Hills: driving accuracy
and hitting greens in regulation. (He is 12th on the Tour in both
categories.) Verplank has the added advantage of having gone to
college in Oklahoma. He lives 102 miles down Interstate 44 from
Tulsa, in Edmond, and he estimates that he has played Southern
Hills two dozen times. "The course sets up real well for me," he
says. "I'm familiar with the area, and I'll have lots of fan
support. If I'm playing well, this is probably going to be my
best chance at an Open."
It's hardly necessary to add a caveat here, but Verplank does
anyway. "Of course," he says, "it all depends on what Tiger
Woods may be, as Azinger called him, "the most dominant athlete
in the history of sports."
Southern Hills "sets up real well for me," Verplank says. "I'm
familiar with the area, and I'll have lots of fan support."