Two weeks after missing the cut at this year's Masters with a pair of 77s, Scott Verplank—America's best young amateur since Jack Nicklaus—was back among the Georgia pines. His back, in fact, was up against a Georgia pine; his ball rested on a bed of pine needles, sitting precariously on a fat twig. On a day when a strong field of college players was carving up par at Statesboro's Forest Heights Country Club, the pre-tournament favorite to win the Chris Schenkel Intercollegiate was merely whittling on his mystique.
Eyeing the 10th green through the trees, the Oklahoma State senior experimented with two or three awkward stances and finally chopped down sharply on the ball. The twig somersaulted, and the ball squirted sideways across the fairway. Disgusted, Verplank took a quick swipe at the offending twig, picked up his bag and stomped off after the ball.
"You left your Coke! You left your Coke!" a spectator called after him, pointing to a half-full cup of ice on the ground. Verplank did not look back.
The spectator turned to a friend and asked facetiously, "He's not mad, is he?"
Mad? Well, maybe not club-throwing mad. But since a rainy day last August, when he sank a six-foot playoff putt in the Chicago suburbs to win the Western Open—and become the first amateur in 31 years to take a PGA Tour event—Verplank has tried to play up to the expectations engendered by that feat. At the Schenkel, he expressed his frustration with puffed cheeks, sighs and long, soulful stares at sky and ground. This was not how he pictured the last spring of his amateur career.
"I wanted to throw my clubs in the water on the last hole," a tired and sweaty Verplank said in the clubhouse after the second round. "I turned a 67 into a 71 today on the last two holes." He shook his head. "It's no one thing. I'll hit it in the woods, and then the next three shots will be perfect." He chewed on some ice, apparently soothed by the crunching.
How, then, does Verplank assess the state of his game before the NCAA championships begin on May 28?
He grinned weakly and only half-kidding said, "Despair!"
If Verplank truly despaired, he had only to look past the Schenkel. When he turns pro in June at the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills on Long Island, N.Y., he will be the most heralded rookie since Nicklaus burst on the scene in 1962 and won the U.S. Open for his first tour victory. Verplank's fourth-place tie in last winter's MONY Tournament of Champions—he bested 25 pros who won tour events last year—suggested that he might even be pro golf's next dominant man.
"I think Verplank is as good as any player on the tour right now," says Calvin Peete. "He sort of reminds me of Johnny Miller and Lanny Wadkins and Nicklaus before they turned pro. They were pros, they just didn't carry the title."