Bobby Clampett's Open
Blast from The Past
Bobby Clampett's appearance at Pebble Beach—where he shot a 14-over 298 to finish 37th, 26 strokes behind Tiger Woods-was a return to the wellspring. Because this U.S. Open was Clampett's first since 1986 and was played in the town where he grew up and on the course where he learned the game, the week was an emotional one for the 40-year-old part-rime player and full-time TV announcer.
Clampett had asked for an exemption from local qualifying, and when the USGA refused his request, he used the rejection as motivation to play his way into the field. Once he made it, though, Clampett had plenty of trepidation about how he would perform. He had not played in a tournament since missing the cut at the 1998 Buick Challenge. "It's a little bit like signing up for college in early September and deciding not to go to class for a whole year, and then showing up for final exams," he said.
Clampett aced the test by drawing on a flood of memories from Pebble Beach. It was there that he had shagged balls for Arnold Palmer in the '72 Open, won two California State Amateurs and tied for third, behind Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus, in the '82 Open. In the first round last week Clampett put on a textbook display of shotmaking. He didn't miss a green or fairway over the first 10 holes while going four under par. "When I made the putt on 9 for a birdie, I looked up and thanked God. My eyes welled up with tears. It was amazing."
No more amazing, though, than the fact that nearly two decades have passed since Clampett last played that way. The most common explanation for his dry spell is that Clampett got too deep into swing mechanics and lost his natural gift. In his own defense Clampett compares himself with Tiger Woods, who as a junior used to be compared to the young Bobby Clampett. "As good as he is, Tiger tries to get better every single day by improving his technique, which is what I tried to do," says Clampett. "Look at what it has done for him. It simply didn't turn out the same way for me."
Clampett's first teacher, Ben Doyle, believes that it wasn't the effort to get better that ruined Clampett. Doyle says it was Clampett's inability to properly filter information. When Clampett was 13, Doyle began teaching him the highly technical theories from the book The Golfing Machine, by Homer Kelley. "For ten years he was getting better every year," says Doyle. "Then, for a reason he has never explained, he started seeing other teachers."
Despite working with instructors like Jimmy Ballard and Hank Haney, Clampett became a fringe player by the mid-'80s and never won again. (His lone victory came in the '82 Southern Open.) "Everyone knows that I never met anybody's expectations, or my own," says Clampett. "I was always disappointed in the progress I was making with my swing and my game."
Doyle remains close to Clampett but doesn't hesitate to say that he wasted a rare talent. "Bobby could have done what Tiger Woods has done," says Doyle, who teaches at the Golf Club at Quail Lodge in Carmel, "but he became so mechanical, so robotlike, with so many screwy ways of hitting the ball. He used to be able to hit a ball on one leg and still look artistic. He lost all his flair and grace."
What Clampett accomplished last week left Doyle with a wistful feeling. "Bobby can still do it," he says. "Deep down, it's there. I would love to help him find it."
Daly Wimps Out