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Original Issue

Tougher than an oak tree

Scott Verplank unleashed a birdie blitz to win the U.S. Amateur

As Scott Verplank was about to cross a narrow fairway bridge on the 33rd and, as it turned out, last hole of the 84th U.S. Amateur Championship on the Oak Tree Golf Club Course in Edmond, Okla. Sunday, a course marshall implored the pressing spectators to part. "Player!" he called out. He couldn't have been more right.

Verplank, a 20-year-old junior at Oklahoma State, defeated Sam Randolph, a 20-year-old junior at USC, 4 and 3 in the scheduled 36-hole final. Verplank was 2-down with 11 holes to play but exploded for five birdies over the next eight holes, including a downhill, double-breaking 30-foot putt that closed Randolph out.

With the local OSU fans rooting him on and Cowboy golf coach Mike Holder carrying his bag, Verplank was the tournament medalist with a 71-66—137 for the first two stroke-play rounds. In match play he controlled his first five contests in the heat—it was 107° on Wednesday afternoon—and wind as though the Havemeyer Trophy already had Scott Verplank inscribed on it. But on Sunday the rains came, along with the free-swinging Randolph, known as the Leopard by his teammates for the graceful way he stalks a course. Like his All-America counterpart Verplank, Randolph was playing in his first U.S. Amateur. And he could have won it had a balky putter not kept him from taking a substantial early lead in the final.

Verplank is a diabetic, and on the first three holes he suffered from the effects of low blood-sugar level, falling 2-down. But the Dallas native ate an orange and drank three cans of juice on the next tee, and his health improved, if not his game. For several hours he struggled with sprayed drives and poorly hit irons. But through sheer grit—"Player!"—he kept scrambling.

It helped that Randolph, who plays at La Cumbre Country Club in Santa Barbara, where his father, Sam Sr., is head pro, never made a putt of more than 15 feet all day. And on the 17th and 18th he missed two three-footers that enabled Verplank to go to lunch all even.

In the afternoon, Verplank finally found his tempo on the 8th hole, the 26th of the match, by which time he was again 2-down. On this 171-yard par 3 to an island green, he hit a five-iron to 10 feet and, abandoning his normal meticulous study, stepped up and just knocked it in. He did the same for birdies on the 27th and 28th. And when Randolph lipped a five-footer and bogeyed at the 32nd, Verplank was suddenly 3-up with four to play. "I've never seen putting like that," said Randolph. "A machine couldn't have done that."

But it was a machine, for that's the best way to describe Verplank's approach to golf and nearly everything else. Dealing with the dietary and medicinal demands of diabetes since age nine has taught him discipline and organization. His stony visage suggests a blond Charles Bronson. The way he studies his way around a golf course suggests Jack Nicklaus. Once he makes a decision on a shot, he applies a powerfully compact swing built by long hours on the practice tee; he hits 1,500 balls a week and works on his short game religiously. Off the course he carries a 3.35 grade-point average in business; and he insists he'll graduate before turning pro.

Verplank has been a prodigy in Texas golf circles since he was 14. In 1981, at the age of 17, he was the youngest winner in the history of the Texas Amateur. Now he can hardly be regarded as anything but the best amateur in the U.S. He won the Texas Amateur again in June, and the LaJet Amateur in August for the third year in a row. He also set a record by being 14 under par for four rounds of qualifying for the Western Amateur. Only a poor outing in the NCAA, where he tied for 24th, has marred his record this season.

"I consider Jay Sigel to be the best amateur in the country," Verplank had said before the final. "But if I can do what everybody says I should do, I guess I'll get some consideration."

This Amateur drew more early attention than any in decades because Sigel, the 40-year-old Berwyn, Pa. insurance salesman, was chasing an unprecedented third straight championship. Sigel's preparation was disrupted by the death of his father and his mother-in-law within six days last month, and he came to Edmond downplaying his chances. Still, he matched the record on the Oak Tree Country Club course—a slightly less challenging layout than the Oak Tree Golf Club course—in his first qualifying round on Tuesday with a 68.

But before his first match on Thursday, Sigel's 5-year-old daughter, Megan, got on the phone and asked her daddy to hurry home. "Please try and lose," she begged. Megan got her wish when Sigel ran into a giant-killer named Rocco Mediate, a 21-year-old from near Pittsburgh who plays at Florida Southern. Earlier this summer Rocco was one of the guys who KO'd Arnold Palmer in sectional qualifying for the U.S. Open, ending Arnie's string of 31 straight Open appearances.

At Oak Tree, Mediate got Sigel 3-down after 11 holes and hung on to win 3 and 1. Said Sigel, "When the bell rang, nothing happened. I don't know why." He hadn't been obsessed with winning three straight, but before leaving town he admitted, "I'm glad it's over."

Taking up the flag for the over-30s after Sigel's departure was Randy Sonnier, a 35-year-old Continental Airlines pilot who lost to Verplank 1-up in the semifinals Saturday. Sonnier would have had to forfeit the match if he hadn't stayed up past midnight Friday to find a replacement pilot for the Dallas-Denver-Salt Lake City trip he was scheduled to fly on Saturday. He hung tough enough to make Verplank sink a six-footer for par to win on the last hole.

It was difficult for anyone to get rolling at Oak Tree, a Pete Dye creation of contrived naturalness featuring fairway moguls, grass bunkers and water on 12 of 18 holes. Its rating is 76.9 from the back tees, the highest the USGA has ever given, almost a full stroke more than Spyglass Hill. It's so tough that the USGA shortened the rough from three to 2½ inches and moved some of the tees up.

Verplank, who had played Oak Tree about 30 times, was confident that the tougher conditions got, the greater his advantage. After finishing his Wednesday round in the stifling heat, he came into the clubhouse and piped, "Gee, that was great. No wind."

Randolph, who beat Jerry Haas of Wake Forest 7 and 5 in the semis, shares none of Verplank's intensity. He didn't even leave California for amateur tournaments this summer. He also knew he was the decided underdog against Verplank. "I'm going to have to play my best just to keep from getting embarrassed," he said.

Randolph certainly didn't embarrass himself. "I had chances, but Scott came back with incredible golf," he said.

After the match, Randolph's USC coach, Randy Lein, congratulated Holder, his opposite number, and asked, "What did you feed Scott at lunch?"

Holder smiled. "Nails," he said. "Just nails."


Verplank's grooved swing kept him up, not down.


Randolph had the drive, but his putter failed him.


Ed Cuff's chance to boat Randolph came up short and on the rocks, despite some unorthodox measures.


Sonnier didn't fly until after the semis.