HE PLAYS IT STRAIGHT : Scott Simpson Keeps Game and Life in Line

Times Staff Writer

The U.S. Open champion used to catch cockroaches barehanded in "The House" at USC, after which he would stick them in a microwave and watch them explode.

The U.S. Open champion used to play the trumpet for Ozzie's Marching Chargers at halftime in San Diego's old Balboa Stadium.

The U.S. Open champion was once so skeptical of religion that his father later called him an atheist. And he agreed.

Not many people know those things about Scott Simpson. Not that many people outside the PGA Tour know that Simpson is the U.S. Open champion. Too many people inside the tour think Simpson is, well, uninteresting. And that's unfortunate.

Know this:

Simpson is the slow-walking, slow-talking, slow-swinging son of two San Diego schoolteachers, and he birdied 14, 15 and 16 on the final round at San Francisco's Olympic Club last June to snatch the Open away from Tom Watson.

Since late 1986, when he stopped trying to be longer off the tee than his swing permitted, he has patiently worked the bugs out of his game. Since he quit playing the trumpet at age 13, he has steadfastly refused to blow his own horn. And since he started getting answers to his tough questions, he has steadily increased his personal investment in a religious commitment that began only after extensive and scholarly research.

"The fact that Christianity might help me deal with problems on the tour has never been good enough for me," he says. "I used to reject religion for just that reason. You can say all the prayers you want. But the guy that hits the ball the best--that's the guy that's going to win. I still believe that."

Last year, Simpson won two tournaments and $621,032. Only three players won more money; only two won more PGA events. "It doesn't get much better than that," is the way Dan Stojak puts it. Stojak is Simpson's caddy of eight years. And he is thrilled about the promise of the 1988 season, which began for Simpson with a one-over-par 73 Thursday in the opening round of the MONY Tournament of Champions at Rancho La Costa.

When Stojak and Simpson limped onto Olympic for their first practice round the week of the Open, both had forgotten why they been looking forward to that tournament and that course. "He was hooking it all over," Stojak says. "I thought I'd be in Reno by the weekend."

But by the end of the week, Simpson had ascended to what tour spiritualist Mac O'Grady calls the "first subculture of golf." At 31, Simpson had won his first major championship. Golf sages say it will be much easier for him to win his next one. They say he will be able to draw upon the experience of Olympic if and when he gets that close again. But Simpson says there were no major epiphanies on the last nine holes.

"The big difference was I just putted so good," he says.

Golf, at its highest level, often reduces itself to nothing more than that. "When you're putting good and you know it, you can't wait to get to the golf course," says Lee Trevino.

And Simpson knew it. "I haven't been able to duplicate that putting stroke since then," he says. "And I doubt I ever will."

A bunker explosion on 11 that rustled the flag and almost dropped in the hole didn't hurt Simpson either. Nor did Watson's approach on 18, a shot that checked up and settled on the edge of the fringe. Watson needed the putt to win. He didn't make it.

Simpson's father, Joe, an accomplished Southern California amateur golfer, watched Watson's miss on the bedroom television of his Kearny Mesa home. He was flat on his back with a ruptured disc. When Watson failed, Joe Simpson screamed out in a mixture of pain and joy. Out in the living room where Simpson's mother, Char, was entertaining friends, there were tears. It was Father's Day.

Soon Simpson was telling ABC announcer Al Trautwig and a national television audience that he hadn't expected to win. He told Joe Simpson, through the camera, that he loved him. But mostly he was numb. Only much later was he able to sort out what he had achieved and how it might affect his career.

"Until you win a major, there are always questions and doubts as to whether you can really do it," he says. "There are a lot of great players who have never won a major. And I think in that respect, if I do play well, and get in contention again, I can draw upon Olympic and stay calm and know that it's possible."

The financial rewards were more immediate. First place was worth $150,000. Appearance fees doubled instantly. Aureus, a clothing manufacturer, rushed to sign Simpson to a three-year contract. And when his contract with Yamaha expired at the end of last year, the company that makes Simpson's golf equipment made him an offer he couldn't refuse.

"I'm getting a lot more money than I would if I hadn't won the Open," Simpson says simply.

Watson vividly recalls the precise moment he knew he was about to win his first major. It happened on the 70th hole of the 1977 Masters. He was tied with Jack Nicklaus at the time. His "three-quarter" five-iron inhaled the flagstick at Augusta National's par-3 16th.

"It's hard to describe," Watson says now. "But when I hit that shot, all of a sudden all the pressure just flushed out of me. Ssshheeww. It was like a feeling of calm in the eye of a storm. I wish that feeling would recur a little more."

Watson says he had that feeling again on the first tee of the final round of last summer's Open. Simpson, meanwhile, was still trying to convince the assembled sporting media that he was sincere in his insistence that he was just happy to have survived the 36-hole cut.

With 18 holes to play, he trailed Watson by a shot. And Joe Simpson liked his son's chances. He and Scott had played Olympic the previous November. Scott had shot even par, and he had done it effortlessly. The elder Simpson had correctly guessed that Olympic would be murder on long hitters because of its narrow, tree-lined fairways and a preponderance of doglegs positioned between 250 and 270 yards from the tee. If the long driver hit it straight, Joe Simpson figured, he would drive through the fairway and take himself out of the hole.

"The golf course was made for Scott," he said. Scott knew it, too.

But he was still fighting the tour myth that says players who have "been there" before during the final round have a huge advantage over those who haven't.

"The final round of the Open is a lot more about courage than it is about skill," Watson said after the third round.

Maybe courage wasn't what helped Simpson win the California state juniors at age 15. And maybe courage had nothing to do with Simpson's struggle with a balky putter at windy Albuquerque in 1976, when he won the first of his two NCAA championships.

New Mexico State's golf coach, Herb Wimberly, the NCAA tournament chairman that year, was all set to award the medalist trophy to another player when USC Coach Stan Wood had to remind him that the quiet Simpson needed a par on the final hole to finish first.

"No!" said an astonished Wimberly. Wood was less surprised when Simpson drained a 20-footer for birdie to win by two shots.

The next year, at Colgate in Hamilton, N.Y., Simpson overcame near-freezing temperatures in June to win again. A pattern was emerging: Every time Simpson won anything that meant anything, he did so under adverse conditions. And the pattern resurfaced in 1980 when Simpson won his first PGA event, the Western Open, at monstrous Butler National outside Chicago.

An agronomical nightmare had ruined Butler's greens in the weeks leading up to the tournament. By the time the pros arrived, there was nothing but dirt where greens had once been. Simpson had learned to play at San Diego's Stardust Golf Club, where the greens had occasionally browned out in a similar fashion. No sweat. He shot four rounds of par or better and won easily. At age 24, with less than two full years of tour experience, he had won one of the PGA's most prestigious events on one of its three or four toughest tracks.

His next tour win was in 1984 at Westchester, where temperatures reached record highs and wilting humidity turned the course into a hothouse. Then last spring he won his third professional tournament at cold, windy, rainy, sleety Greensboro.

The U.S. Open, of course, doesn't need the elements or course conditions to make it difficult. By definition, Simpson says, "it's an adverse tournament."

Watson is still somewhat at a loss to explain how Simpson conquered Olympic and history on the final nine holes that Sunday. But he insists he wasn't surprised. "When Scott gets on a roll, he hardly ever misses a shot," Watson says.

Simpson also has a hard time explaining precisely where he got this almost Kiplingesque ability to keep his head when others around him are losing theirs.

"Maybe my basic nature is to handle things intellectually and not so much emotionally," he says. "So when it gets tougher, I'm better able to adapt my game."

Stability is another important puzzle piece. He married his Madison High School sweetheart, with whom he attended USC. They have two young children and, according to Simpson, have never had a "major" (there's that word again) argument. "Cheryl's my best friend," he says.

They were both above-average students at USC. And both avoided most of the distractions of "The House," a rambling off-campus structure located on Van Ness Street in a deteriorating portion of the Wilshire neighborhood.

It was not a fraternity in the Greek sense, but it was where most of the golfers lived. Tour player Craig Stadler, two years ahead of Simpson at USC, furnished "The House" for $100 after visiting a nearby flea market. And Stadler's father set up golf nets inside. But on Saturday nights, the nets served little purpose. Simpson remembers one such evening when certain of the tenants became overserved.

"Golf balls were flying all over the place," he recalls. "Including in and out of the windows."

On another occasion, police arrived at "The House" to investigate reports of a shooting. Of course the only thing Stadler, Simpson et al. had been shooting were birdies. But for reasons that have since escaped Simpson, Stadler couldn't get the front door open. He had to climb out a side window and scurry around to the front before he could explain: "No sir, officer. No shooting here."

Simpson and La Jolla's Stadler have known each other forever. Former USC Coach Wood says Simpson used to needle Stadler constantly, even though Stadler was older. And Stadler was responsible for Simpson's nickname of "Stimp," which traced back to all the times announcers mispronounced his name on the first tee. Similarly, tour player Mark Pfeil, another USC alumnus, became "Piffle."

But Simpson insists, "I wasn't much at partying. And despite what Stadler says, I studied. Between that and Cheryl and playing and practicing, there wasn't too much time left for anything else."

Cheryl had embraced Christianity early on, but Simpson militantly avoided religion. He had more questions than Cheryl had answers. And he was openly defiant in 1981 when golfer Morris Hatalsky dragged him off to a Bible study meeting for tour players. Even though he was quiet, Simpson had grown up detesting authority.

"I was rebellious," he says. "I was lucky I had golf."

At his first Masters that year, Simpson was disillusioned. "I didn't appreciate the plantation atmosphere with all black caddies and waiters and white galleries," he said after the tournament. "I guess I'm too used to California, where things are not so formal or strict."

His view of Christianity was a dim one. So at the Bible meeting, he asked why the innocent suffer if there is a "loving God." He asked about hypocrites. "I can't stand hypocrites, especially Christian ones," he said. But he kept an open mind. Three years and hundreds of questions later, Simpson took what he later described as "a leap of faith."

Perhaps it was coincidence that 1984 was his best year. He won $248,581 and finished 22nd on the money list. He refuses to equate the two events. "There are a lot of great players who aren't Christians," he says. "Religion has nothing to do with great golf."

O'Grady disagrees. "What religion does," he says, "is it allows a player to realize that he, himself, is not the great entity of the world and that the sun does not come up because he is living on this planet. It's painful out here. You need whatever you can to keep yourself internally focused."

Simpson never lost that internal focus, but succumbed, instead, to external pressures. By 1985 he had decided he needed more length off the tee to climb higher on the money list. He consulted respected tour teachers Peter Kostis and Hank Haney.

"And to tell you the truth," says Joe Simpson, his son's first teacher. "I think they screwed him up a little."

"I thought to be really good, I had to hit the ball farther," Simpson says. "In the process, I lost my ability to hit it straight and consistent."

In 1985, Simpson dropped to 39th on the money list, winning $171,245. He won $33,000 more in 1986 but slid to 41st.

Late in the year, he was frustrated. He left the tour for 11 weeks to ponder golf and to be with his wife, who was pregnant with their second child. The more he thought about it, the more he realized that he never should have deserted the flat swing and the Ben Hogan fundamentals that had taken him so far.

"I just said, 'I'm going back to my game--win, lose or draw. If it doesn't work, I'll go find a job.' "

He found his game instead. In his first outing after the layoff, a late-season match play event in Arizona, he beat Dan Pohl, Danny Edwards, Gary Koch, Lanny Wadkins and Ken Green in succession before losing to Jim Thorpe in the finals. His second-place check of $90,000 was just a warmup for 1987. By the end of last year, he had jumped to 25th on the all-time money list with career earnings of $1,832,356.

His Open victory over Watson punctuated the comeback with an exclamation point. Watson, too, had been slumping since 1984 and was in the midst of a comeback of his own. He would later win at the Nabisco Championships of Golf in San Antonio, Tex., in November. But losing the Open was bitter.

"People say, 'Well, he (Simpson) made a lot of putts the last nine holes,' " Watson says. "But you go back to 1982 and my victory over Nicklaus in the Open at Pebble Beach--I made five putts over 20 feet the last nine holes, and I holed a chip shot at 17!"

So much for the long game. Simpson earned $621,032 last year despite finishing 177th out of 188 players in average driving distance. John McComish, who led the tour in driving distance in 1987 with an average of 283.9, won $34,319 and finished 172nd on the money list.

The fact is, Scott Simpson has finally succeeded on and off the golf course because he hasn't overreached. He plays golf within himself. And that's how he wants to live.

"My overriding goal in life is to be content, and happy, and enjoy life and have fun with my family," he says. "I always wanted to be one of the better players. I don't think I'll ever be a superstar. I'm not perfect."

But know this: He is the U.S. Open champion. And more.

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