The PGA tour finally got back to golf last week in San Diego, sort of. The good news was that the Buick Invitational actually crowned a champion, local boy Scott Simpson. The bad news was the way he won. Simpson all but clinched the victory while sitting in the clubhouse eating a turkey sandwich as the rest of the field was throwing up down the stretch. Among the would-be contenders, only Skip Kendall could generate any momentum, and he wound up handing Simpson the $378,000 winner's check by blowing a three-footer on the first playoff hole. That was a fitting end to a frustrating day.
Because of the incessant rain delays this month on Tour, the Buick was shortened to 54 holes, and Sunday's action consisted only of the remains of a third round that had begun the previous afternoon. That left Simpson with a grand total of three holes to play, which he took care of long before the TV audience, or anyone else, tuned in. The most taxing part of his day then became pretending not to be too excited by the other golfers' misfortunes while he lounged in the players' dining area for the next hour and a half, monitoring the telecast.
"It was a weird way to win a golf tournament, but I'll take it," Simpson said after the seventh victory of his 20-year career, but his first since 1993. "It was really, really important that we finished this tournament. The Tour's been under the gun after what happened at Pebble Beach." (The AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am was rained out after 36 holes. A final round has been scheduled for Aug. 17.) Like Puddle Beach, the Buick's story line was dominated by the weather. Heavy rain early in the week softened Torrey Pines and turned the sunny first round into a breakneck birdiefest, especially among a flammable trio of players in the same group, Davis Love III, Payne Stewart and Bob Tway. Love took the early lead with an eight-birdie, one-eagle 62, while Tway was one of four golfers to shoot 63. "I felt like I shot 80," Stewart said after his 66.
Before play even finished last Thursday, Arvin Ginn, the Tour's tournament director, announced that all of the next day's tee times were being moved up two hours in an attempt to complete round 2 before a thunderous storm that was predicted for Friday afternoon. Alas, the storm blew in early, and by noon the saturated greens were unplayable. Play was suspended for the day, stranding 146 golfers on the course. Thus the second round was completed on Saturday morning, with leader Steve Pate two strokes up on his nearest competitor, Kendall, and eight ahead of Simpson. After the cut was made, the golfers teed it back up and played until dark. Heavy rain on Saturday night and Sunday morning (and a dire forecast for Monday) tempered the Tour officials' lust to play 72 holes, and the stage was set for Sunday's fractured final round.
Simpson had actually inserted himself into the picture on Saturday afternoon as he torched Torrey Pines for seven birdies in his 15 holes, thanks to a magic wand. He took just 19 putts, due in large part to his knowledge of the tricky seaside greens. Simpson, 42, was born in San Diego and makes his home there, and he has been playing Torrey Pines since he was 14. During much of his youth he cad-died there, including loops a couple of times at the San Diego Open, the forerunner of the Buick. Though he won 27 junior events in the talent-rich area—some at Torrey Pines—Simpson had contended for the Buick only once before, in 1996, when he tied for third. "Next to the major championships, this is the one tournament I've always dreamed about winning," he said on Saturday evening.
Last season a reasonable dream for Simpson was simply making a cut, which happened only 16 times in 25 starts. Fighting bad mechanics and a mushrooming apathy, Simpson had the worst year of his career, free-falling to 149th on the money list, the first time he had failed to crack the top 125. (With the expiration of a 10-year exemption from his 1987 U.S. Open victory, this year Simpson cashed in his one-time-only free pass as one of the Tour's top 50 career money winners.) "I wasn't that motivated," says Simpson. "I guess I was getting to that age when I didn't want to be out there that much. I wasn't practicing, so when I did play, it was frustrating. I had been at it a long time, and I was tired."
Simpson is known on Tour for his religious faith and his commitment to his family, and last year he skipped large chunks of the schedule to road-trip with his wife, Cheryl, daughter, Brea, 15, and son, Sean, 11. They went to spring training with the Padres, vacationed at Pismo Beach, Calif., and holed up in a cabin on a lake in Wisconsin. "The time away from golf gave me a chance to reflect on some things," says Simpson, who is also regarded as one of the Tour's deep thinkers. Unlike many of his colleagues, he stuck around college long enough to earn a degree in business administration from USC, and in the media guide, under special interests, he lists, among other things, reading. "I was reminded of what a privilege it is to play on Tour and that I owed it to myself and my family to stay dedicated while I'm still out here."
He worked hard this off-season with his coach, Kip Puterbaugh, to find his old swing, searching for the simplicity and tempo that had worked in the past. "This is the best he's ever swung," Puterbaugh said on Sunday. On the greens Simpson has also moved the ball up in his stance and closer to his body, with dramatic results. Still, the big change is in his 'tude.
"This year Scott is dedicated to having fun out there, which wasn't always the case last year," says Cheryl. His emotionless game face notwithstanding, Simpson is at his best when he's loose, which is why he loves to play the straight man for Bill Murray every year at Pebble Beach. With the intention of having a good time, he talked his neighbor, Stan Humphries, the San Diego Chargers quarterback, into caddying for him at the Buick. This week at the Hawaiian Open, Brea will be on the bag. None of this, however, minimizes Simpson's desire, which is palpable.
On Sunday morning he came out "like a man on a mission," said Humphries. "He was locked in." Having begun the third round on the 10th tee, Simpson was finishing up on the front nine. On the 453-yard par-4 7th, Simpson just missed the green with his approach but chipped in for birdie to get to 12 under. "A huge rush, " he said.