On Sunday in Kingsmill, Va., Curtis Strange returned home from a
pleasant afternoon of fishing and promptly turned green around
the gills. No sooner had Strange tuned in to the telecast of the
Canadian Open than Scott Verplank made a homely double bogey on
the 16th hole, slicing what had been a commanding three-shot
lead to a lone stroke. It's hard to figure which man was feeling
more pressure at that point.
Last month Strange put his neck on the chopping block by making
Verplank the first rookie ever selected as a Ryder Cup captain's
choice. Part of what made the pick so controversial was
Verplank's inability to close the deal. Since his reemergence in
1998, when he was voted the Tour's comeback player of the year
after going a decade without a victory, Verplank had amassed 14
top six finishes but had won only one tournament. Along the way
he had lost playoffs to such lesser lights as Trevor Dodds ('98
Greensboro) and Robert Damron (2001 Byron Nelson). If Verplank
stumbled again, at the Canadian Open, the howls of protest would
be heard from Scottsdale, Ariz., all the way to Barrington, R.I.
So what was Strange thinking while watching Verplank putt out
that double bogey?
"You hate to see anybody lose a three-shot lead on the last few
holes," Strange said on Sunday evening. Pause. Chuckle.
"Especially if it's Scott Verplank."
Not to worry, Cap'n. In the kind of clutch performance that bodes
well for his Ryder Cup debut, the 37-year-old Verplank followed
his miscue by rifling his tee shot to 20 feet on the testy par-3
17th at Royal Montreal Golf Club and burying the clinching birdie
putt. He then finished with a flourish, dropping a 25-footer at
18 for a scrambling par and a three-stroke victory over Bob Estes
and Joey Sindelar. It was the fourth win of Verplank's 15-year
September 16, 2001
So, did Strange leap off his couch and do a victory dance? Or,
perhaps, unleash a series of Tigeresque fist pumps? "I think
you're reading a little too much into the situation," Strange
said. Then again, he couldn't resist a little jab at all the
second-guessers. "It does show that some of us know what we're
doing," he said.
Verplank, too, was talking a little trash. "Maybe this makes
Curtis look smarter than everybody thought he was," he said.
In truth, this declaration had to be goaded out of Verplank. He's
remarkably cool about his place on the hot seat, a confidence
born of his play. Verplank has missed only two cuts in 13 months,
but his consistency was penalized in the U.S.'s curious Ryder Cup
qualifying format, which is weighted solely on top 10s. "I've
been the king of the 15th-place finish," says Verplank, who has
come in between 11th and 20th 15 times in the past two seasons.
Then, too, there was that 67 he shot in the final round of the
PGA Championship, which helped sway Strange. "I was proud I
played that well in what I thought was the biggest round of the
year for me," says Verplank. More than anything, Verplank's
equanimity in the face of all the Ryder Cup hoopla is a tribute
to what his friend Bob Tway calls a "larger perspective," gained
through enough ups and downs to fill two episodes of Behind the
By the time Verplank won the 1985 Western Open while still an
undergraduate at Oklahoma State, he had been tagged as the latest
in a long line of Next Nicklauses. He was beginning to fulfill
those expectations as a pro when a string of serious injuries
derailed his career. Trying to play with painful bone spurs in
his right elbow in 1991, Verplank made only one cut in 26
tournaments. Two operations ensued, and not until '95 did
Verplank begin to piece his game back together. So, of course,
his other elbow gave out, and in '96 Verplank was operated on
again. Oh, and did we mention that he has been battling Type I
diabetes since age nine? Verplank wears a device that pumps
insulin through a tube into his stomach 24 hours a day. Said
Strange, in announcing Verplank's selection to the Ryder Cup
team, "I think Scott has a huge heart, when you look at where
he's come from: Injuries, fighting diabetes every day--only he
knows what that's taken from him. Every day he has to wake up
being a fighter, and that's what you want."
Most of Verplank's battles last week were with a press corps that
grilled him about his Ryder Cup worthiness. Verplank began the
Canadian Open with a quiet even-par 70 but stormed into
contention on Friday with a course-record-tying 63. Afterward he
was asked the inevitable: Was he feeling any pressure to justify
Strange's selection? "That's why I made those two bogeys today,"
Verplank said with a smirk. Then he launched into a monologue
that sounded as if it had been prepared by a defense attorney.
"I'm 25th in the World Ranking," Verplank said, "and only 24 guys
are in the event. Six or eight of them in front of me aren't
eligible for the Ryder Cup, so...."
Actually, Verplank came into last week ranked 26th, and only five
players in front of him hailed from neither the U.S. nor Europe.
His point was made, but he failed to mention that the one
American in front of him in the World Ranking who is not on the
team was Tom Lehman, at 23rd. Simply put, Verplank needed to come
through with a victory at the Canadian Open to silence his
critics, and deep down he knew it. "Oh, yeah, it would mean
something," he said on Friday.
Verplank began to seize control during the third round, when he
shot a 66 in blustery conditions to move into the lead, a stroke
ahead of Paul Gow and Dicky Pride. On a day of low scoring,
Verplank came out on Sunday grinding for pars. After failing to
birdie the par-5 6th hole, he was caught atop the leader board by
a resurgent John Daly, and four others had drawn within a stroke.
Then in the heart of Quebec, Verplank staged his own separatist
movement with birdies at 7, 9, 13 and 15, building that
commanding three-shot lead and setting the stage for the final
"That was as solid as I've ever seen anybody play under the
circumstances," said Gow, Verplank's playing partner in the final
round. "It was unbelievable the way he managed himself around the
course. He never panicked, even when there was ample reason. He
was incredibly relaxed."
On and off the course, Verplank, married and the father of three,
radiates a certain swaggering cool. He has the square-jawed
visage of Charles Bronson and is not above spouting the glib
one-liners of an action movie star. Asked if his second-round
pairing with Jesper Parnevik was a good dress rehearsal for a
possible Ryder Cup matchup, Verplank said, "If that was what he
was thinking about today, we would have quit after about number
11 or 12." (Had it been match play, Verplank would have closed
out Parnevik 4 and 3.)
This playful sensibility should help endear Verplank to his
teammates in the fraught atmosphere of the Belfry, and it helps
explain his success in previous team experiences. He was a
medalist at the '98 World Cup in New Zealand, and in a past life
he won 3 1/2 out of a possible four points at the '85 Walker Cup.
He led Oklahoma State to the '83 national championship (and won
the NCAA individual title in '86). "Scott loves to give the
needle, but he can take it too," says Tway, who at home often
locks horns with Verplank in $10-a-shot matches at Oak Tree Golf
Club in Edmond, Okla., where both reside. "The more intense the
situation, the looser he gets."
Verplank's take? "Listen, all that stuff I've been through has
made me a better player and toughened me up a bit," he says.
"That's one reason I haven't been nervous for a round of golf in
a long time."
This is obviously an ideal temperament for the Ryder Cup, in
which Verplank's game should also be a tonic. On a team of
freewheeling bashers, he is a point A to point B strategist, and
his precision is ideal in the alternate-shot foursomes, an
awkward format that has bedeviled the U.S. "He is a very, very
good ball striker," Strange says. "He's dependable and
predictable, and that's what you want in foursomes."
All that time Verplank spent sidelined by injuries is what put
him on the straight and narrow. "Scott had a lot of time to think
about his swing," says Tway. "It was like halftime, when you go
in the locker room and make adjustments. He used to line up left
and hit this block cut all the time, and sometimes it would get
away from him. Now he lines up dead straight and just swings. I
look at his swing on video, and position by position it's
His swing certainly held up last week, but Verplank knows the
merits of his selection will be decided in England, not Canada.
"I'm happy Curtis picked me," Verplank said on Sunday night. "If
I play like this in two weeks at the Belfry, obviously he's going
to look a whole lot smarter."
Until then the captain will have to do his best to refrain from
gloating. Says Strange, "Some people owe some people...." Pause.
"Nah, I'm not even going to say it."
"Scott had a lot of time to think about his swing," says Tway.
"It was like halftime, when you go in the locker room and make