First Amateur in Tournament of Champions : Verplank Not Awed by Pros, He Beat 'Em Before

Scott Verplank is the first amateur ever to play in the prestigious 34-yer history of the MONY Tournament of Champions, but he isn't exactly overwhelmed at the thought of playing against 30 PGA Tour Champions.

After all, he beat most of them last August in the Western Open to qualify for this elite event. Only winners of 1985 tournaments are eligible for this exclusive $500,000 tournament, which will be played Jan. 8-11 at the La Costa Country Club near Carlsbad, Calif.

As general chairman Allard Roen put it, "The Tournament of Champions is now to golf what the Super Bowl is to football and the World Series is to baseball. All the champions of 1985 can now battle it out to determine the champion of champions."

How does Verplank think he'll fare against the champions this time? He laughed in his bashful manner and said, "Oh gosh. I don't have a clue. I really haven't thought that much about it. I'll just have to wing it. I hope to post a good score, and, if I finish near the top, I'll be very pleased."

Verplank, at 21 the youngest player in the field, is a modest young man who plays with the unemotional concentration and tempermental control of a young Ben Hogan.

The blond Texan (Dallas), a senior at Oklahoma State University, said, "My goal always is not to beat myself. I pit myself against the golf course because I can't control what the others are going to shoot. If I finish high, that's great. If not, I'll take whatever there is."

Verplank has been endowed with superior coordination, golfing skills and intelligence. He is the first collegian ever chosen to both the All-American Academic Team and the All-American Golf Team in the same year. Verplank, the 1984 U.S. Amateur champion, compiled a 3.36 grade point average (out of 4.0) in business administration at OSU last year.

Verplank, a two-time first team All-American, beat husky Jim Thorpe in a playoff for the Western Open to earn his place at La Costa.

"After all the excitement died down after my victory, suddenly I said, 'Hey, I've qualified for the Tournament of Champions. That's really neat.' " Gene Littler won the 1954 San Diego Open as an amateur but played in the T of C that same year as a professional. He tied for seventh place at the Desert Inn in Las Vegas and won $1,000.

Doug Sanders won the 1956 Canadian Open as an amateur, but, at that time, it did not have the status of an official PGA Tournament.

Verplank confirmed what every golfer who has watched him knows--putting is the strongest part of his game. He pads the putter grip with layers of gauze until it's the size of a baseball bat handle.

"I really don't know why I do it. It just feels good to me," he explained. "I've been doing it since I've been a little kid."

He looks a bit frail on television but he's a solid 160 pounds at 5-feet-9 He averages about 250-260 yards on his drives and consistently keeps the ball in the short grass.

He won 12 tournaments last year, reached the quarterfinals in the Amateur and finished 34th in the U.S. Open, easily winning the medal as low amateur.

Verplank said he would graduate and receive his degree this spring and will lead his Cowboy golf team again, hopefully to the NCAA team and individual championships. He nearly won the individual title as a freshman in 1983 at Fresno but lost in a four-way playoff.

He said he was unsure about his professional career. "I might play in the U.S. Open as an amateur and then turn pro or maybe wait until after the Amateur," he said.

Meanwhile, waiting for another crack at Verplank will be Thorpe, who survived the disappointing playoff loss to an amateur and went on to win two tournaments.

Defending champion Tom Kite, Player of the Year Lanny Wadkins, the winners of the four Majors, Bernhard Langer, Masters; Sandy Lyle, British Open; Andy North, U.S. Open, and Hubert Green, PGA, plus Corey Pavin, leading money winner Curtis Strange, Calvin Peete, Mark O'Meara, Fuzzy Zoeller, Raymond Floyd, Hal Sutton, Roger Maltbie, Johnnie Mahaffey and Danny Edwards are other top players looking for the $90,000 first prize.

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