US champ rises from bunker of frustration to golfing prominence

Only eight months ago Scott Simpson was playing so badly he thought about throwing in his golf clubs and turning to a comfortable life as a country club professional. But now as he prepares to tee off in the British Open tomorrow, he does so as the reigning US Open champion. It was late last fall when the quiet, genial pro from San Diego, struggling through his worst year on the PGA Tour, contemplated packing it in. Then his waning fortunes took a turn for the better. He finished second in the last tournament of 1986, and decided to give it another year.

His play picked up this year, including a victory in the Greater Greensboro Open in April and a place among the money leaders - then reached a climax last month on the tight, tough Olympic course in San Francisco. The unheralded, underrated Simpson played steadily throughout the entire four days, then carded successive birdies on the 68th, 69th, and 70th holes to win the US Open by a single stroke over Tom Watson.

Now the scene shifts to Muirfield's rolling seaside fairways near the Scottish capital of Edinburgh. And though he finished only tied for 65th at least year's British Open at Turnberry, he thinks he has good prospects this time.

For one thing, 1986 was his first experience on Scottish links courses, which always take some getting used to. And basically he feels that this is the type of course that suits his game. ``You need a lot of patience,'' he says - and that he now possesses in large quantities.

Simpson's measured, unemotional approach to the game was evident even at the moment of his fairy-tale success in San Francisco. He danced no victory jig as Watson missed the final putt that sealed the outcome. He did smile, and broadly at that. But he said winning the title ``won't mean as much to me as to other guys.''

This is because golf is not his main priority in life. ``God comes first, taking care of my family is second, and golf a distant third,'' he said when I visited the Simpsons at their home-away-from-home, a condominium in Hawaii, a week after the Open.

He had not picked up a golf club since, and was taking a two-week break with his wife, Cheryl, his four-year-old daughter and eight-month-old son, and Cheryl's younger sister, who of late has been on tour with the family, helping look after the children.

Since his US Open triumph, lucrative proposals for endorsements, exhibitions, and special events have been coming in, but Scott is assessing them carefully to make sure that they do not disrupt his family life.

``I guess I am already learning to say no despite several big-money offers,'' he said. ``I am going to take time off with my family, no matter what sums I have to turn down.'' He has never been away from them for longer than two weeks, and he intends to keep it that way.

People as quiet as Scott are not the stuff that folk heroes are made of. They are intended as supporting cast, bit players there to take part but not actually to triumph in the dramatic duels of sporting combat. They are certainly not supposed to upstage truly great golfers like Tom Watson, intent on a comeback after a three-year slump.

``A square in a groove,'' was how Sports Illustrated described Simpson. ``On the thrill scale he ranks slightly ahead of a tuna sandwich. ...''

``The punitive Open loves the plodder, the ascetic, the straight-arrow follower of par,'' wrote the Washington Post.

Certainly Simpson is a shy man, so shy that when he first met Cheryl, his childhood sweetheart, she gave up waiting for him to ask her out and invited him to a party instead. He says until then he had never had the courage to ask any girls for a date.

Yet, is he really as dull and undimensional as he has been painted? Hardly. For one thing, he often sets off his striking black outfits with a touch of pink, and enjoys the company of flamboyant characters like his college contemporary, Craig Stadler.

As for his game, Simpson has a simple, effortless, slow swing, of the sort every golfer should emulate.

His tips, incidentally? ``The key is to turn your hips and drive your knees before you swing down. It's like throwing a baseball - you swivel first then throw last.''

At his level it is vital, he says, to know precisely how far you hit with each club. His 7-iron goes exactly 150 yards. He does not hit as far as most of the top players, but makes up for everything with accuracy and deadly putting.

Many golfers groove their lives as narrowly as their swings - not Simpson. He has a degree from the University of Southern California in business administration, and reads voraciously, including novels and books on child psychology, in addition to news and golfing publications.

A political moderate, he supports a free enterprise system, believing that the golf circuit is an excellent example of freedom of choice and income-earning according to ability.

He is proud that there is no appearance money paid on the US circuit. ``We are lucky the stars have always supported the tour and don't demand it. It gives equal opportunity and means appearance payments don't reduce the prize money.''

While he disapproves of Europe's under-the-table appearance payments, he says that as it is part of the European scene he would accept if and when it is offered to him - as it no doubt will be from now on.

The road to success was never assured for Simpson. When he was 10, his father, an excellent amateur, bought a junior golf set and split it between his two sons. ``I got the evens, my brother got the odds,'' Scott remembers.

The elder brother was too temperamental to make the top grade, but Scott won the nation's top college championship two years running. Yet twice in a row, Scott failed to qualify for admission to the US professional tour, and seriously considered going into business.

He made it the third time, though, after playing in Australia and Japan in 1977 and 1978. He says he enjoyed his time there, and hopes to return soon.

By 1984, he had won two US tournaments, but then began two years of distressing failure to convert promising positions into victories. He had never had any lessons, but now turned to teaching professionals, who tried to remodel his game.

As he played worse and worse, he eventually decided, late last year, to abandon all their teachings and resort to his old game ``for better or for worse.'' Clearly, it was for the better.

It was not always easy, and only a few weeks before the US Open he found himself banging his clubs into his bag with frustration. ``Golfers are perfectionists in a game that frustrates perfectionists,'' he notes.

Yet he kept himself beautifully in check in San Francisco, not even bothering to look at the scoreboard until there were just two holes to play.

Most people believe he will end up with only one major title. Simpson, however, believes that now his formula of ``playing shot for shot, to the best of my God-given ability, not thinking about winning the tournament'' has already worked so well, it will be that much easier to do it again, maybe even this week.

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