It had been 21 years since the Olympic club in San Francisco held a U.S. Open golf championship, and with any luck, it will be 121 years before it holds another. Not that the Lake Course at Olympic, hard by the Pacific Ocean, isn't a choice piece of real estate. It's just that an Open at Olympic is about as much fun as having The Miami Herald move in across the street. It is the world's only par-70 cemetery, and bulldozed under it are some of golf's greatest players, including Ben Hogan and Arnold Palmer. Olympic hit Hogan with a skinny haystack named Jack Fleck in the 1955 Open, and Hogan was never the same. Then, in the 1966 Open, Olympic tortured Arnie with Billy Casper, who made up seven shots in the last nine holes and saw to it that the army never marched off with another major. And last week came the hat trick. Olympic slipped a Mickey in Tom Watson's comeback cocktail.
Until Watson came to Olympic, golf's Huck Finn had been seated at his own funeral. He had not won a tournament in three years, a major in five. But at Olympic, suddenly he was playing his freckles off, only to come up against a square in a groove named Scott Simpson.
Now Simpson is a decent enough player. But on the thrill scale he ranks just behind Edwin Meese and slightly ahead of a tuna sandwich. Though he had no right to, Simpson ruined Watson's longed-for coming-home soiree, partly because of an ungodly run of putting and partly because of one ungodly piece of luck. Simpson won the 1987 U.S. Open by a single shot over Watson, and so there you had it: Olympic had set up and squashed somebody flat again. How long is it until the British Open?
Do you see a trend here? Look at golf's last two major-domos: Bob Tway at the PGA and Larry Mize at the Masters, both quieter than Mafia stenographers. And now comes Simpson, a man who rarely drinks, rarely talks and rarely misses Bible study. If you sat with these three champions—Tway, Mize and Simpson—in one room, you might be able to hear your hair grow. You think that maybe without a lot of commercials to do, residuals to cash, golf courses to design and investment meetings to take, they're at the practice range more? Hmmmm.
Simpson, 31, fits the Olympic Wrong Man mold like the golf glove he doesn't wear. He is Fleck/Casper reinvented. He is not just tall and dark and unheard-of, like Fleck, he is religious, disciplined and a divine putter, like Casper. And like Fleck and Casper, he became Olympic's predestined party pooper, a cop busting up history's bash, dropping 15-footers down the stretch of what is supposed to be the chokingest tournament in the nation, all with a pulse of about 19. Simpson didn't even know he was in the lead until after the 16th hole.
And once finished, with ABC's cameras riveted on his face as Watson's putt to tie at the 18th missed by inches, Simpson smiled as though he had just scraped off a $10 winning lottery ticket. Later Simpson got really emotional. "This is probably my best year yet," he said. Grape Nehis for everybody.
Like Fleck/Casper, Simpson is not Madison Avenue. Simpson is barely Elm Street. Say, hey, USA: Meet your new Open champion. Simpson, who won the NCAA title in 1976 and '77, says the main reason he's on the Tour is to "make a living for my family," which includes his wife, Cheryl, and their two children. He had "never" fantasized as a kid about winning a U.S. Open. He says he never thought he was "good enough to win a U.S. Open." He says winning an Open "won't mean as much to me as to other guys." He doesn't feel he has gotten the recognition he deserves, "which is fine with me." And before Sunday he had no plans to play in the British Open next month because he would rather stay home and play the Hardee's Golf Classic in Coal Valley, Ill., that week to accrue points toward the $1 million Nabisco Grand Prix bonus pool. Other than that, he's an inspiration to golfers everywhere.
Like Casper, he will tithe 10% of his Open purse ($150,000) to his church. Watson, on the other hand, might consider giving 10% to a psychiatrist. Win-less since the 1984 Western Open, Watson quite nearly overcame his own jury-rigged putting stroke, his own fears and, most of all, the unwritten word.
"I've heard everything about me," says Watson. "I'm an alcoholic. I'm on drugs. I'm getting a divorce. I'm moving back to the farm. I'm firing Chuck Rubin [his agent and brother-in-law]. I've heard all the rumors." The only rumor nobody had ever heard—the only one that was true—was that he was making a comeback. And for that he could thank a psychological kick in the rear from his caddie (page 25).
Sigh. Can't you just see it? Pretend the Dread Scott Affair never happened. Pretend Simpson forgot to enter. Here's Watson, 37, putting out a two-incher on 18 while 25,000 people at Olympic give him a standing O. It's an even-par round of 70 that has held together despite three bogeys in the first five holes. It's a masterwork of patience and grit and courage, the game of golf grinning from driver to wedge, watching one of its favorite sons come back from a long illness, resplendent and glowing.