It has been said that a golfer starts the day with at least 18
enemies, and 14 more if you include the implements he's forced
to use to fight the battle. But lately on the PGA tour, it seems
that there are two particularly persistent marauders--one named
Expectations and the other a two-headed monster called Illness
Expectations is a dirty word among players who have risen to the
loftiest levels of the game. It signifies the process by which
the public and press apply relentless pressure to a successful
or promising player to exceed the best he has ever done.
Expectations have left Fred Couples and Davis Love III in their
wake, made Greg Norman chronically defensive and appear to be
doing a number on the world's current No. 1, Nick Price.
Illness and Injury are more time-honored foes, but they have had
a particularly remorseless run in the recent past. Illness
nearly ended the career of Paul Azinger, while Injury has slowed
down several prominent players, most notably Couples and Norman.
It's not just the high profile players who have been stung. At
last week's Colonial National Invitation in Fort Worth, two
players, Tom Lehman and Scott Verplank, emerged victorious from
their respective battles with the forces of evil, and
demonstrated for the moment that they are winning the war.
The most obvious victor was Lehman, who pulled off a dramatic
stretch run that overtook the leader, Woody Austin, with nine
holes to go. Lehman's charge climaxed when he holed birdie putts
of 15 and 25 feet on the final two holes to defeat Craig Parry
by one stroke.
It was the first victory for Lehman since he overwhelmed the
field by five strokes a year ago at another classic site, the
Memorial Tournament at Muirfield Village in Dublin, Ohio. Since
that time, Lehman has performed consistently, but he has not
closed well on Sundays, particularly at the Heritage Classic at
Hilton Head Island, S.C., in April. There he was the midway
leader by four strokes after opening 67-65, only to finish 75-73
and fall back to 24th.
But it was during that tournament that Lehman sensed that he was
inordinately fatigued and that something was physically wrong
with him. He went home to Scottsdale, Ariz., and underwent a
physical, during which polyps were found in his colon. Because
they were discovered at an early stage, they were removed easily
at the Mayo Clinic and Lehman was given a clean bill of health.
When Lehman returned two weeks ago to the Buick Classic at
Westchester (N.Y.) after a four-week break, he was refreshed
and, secure in the knowledge that his confidence-sapping
performance at Hilton Head was due to his illness, felt freed
from the pressure he had been putting on himself. He finished
14th and went to Fort Worth relaxed and eager. As things turned
out, Colonial was just what the doctor ordered.
''I felt like I needed a tournament where I made some big putts
down the stretch,'' said Lehman on Sunday night. ''This week was
the first time all year I felt refreshed and ready to play, and
I've learned you have to be energized to compete out here. If
I'm on my game, there's nobody out here that I am afraid of.''
Though six years younger than Lehman, the 30-year-old Verplank
is much more scared due to his prolonged and frequent tussles
with the two aforementioned antagonists. For all the veterans in
the neighborhood of 40 who have been making midlife comebacks in
1995, none have been through the intense roller coaster that has
been Verplank's brief career over the last decade. And speaking
of comebacks, none can be considered any more miraculous than
Verplank's recent surge.
After taking 18 months off to allow a career-threatening elbow
injury to heal, Verplank rejoined the Tour in early 1994 and has
shown the steadiest prolonged upward curve of his pro career.
Playing last year on a medical extension and sponsors'
exemptions, he finished 97th on the money list to regain a full
exemption for 1995. This year, though he has played in only 12
events to reduce the strain on his right arm, Verplank has
missed just two cuts, had no other finish worse than 36th, and
ranks eighth on the Tour in scoring. Most impressive, his 12th
place finish at Colonial came on the heels of a tie for fourth
at the BellSouth Classic in Atlanta and a tie for fifth at the
Byron Nelson, giving him the three highest consecutive finishes
of his career.
''This was a good tournament for me because I scored well even
though I played badly,'' said Verplank. ''It wasn't that long
ago that I scored badly even when I played well.''
Until his latest rise from the ashes, Verplank was a one-man
cautionary tale, the personification of the touring pro's worst
nightmare. Verplank didn't just struggle with his game, he
completely lost it. At his nadir in 1991 he missed the cut in 25
of the 26 events he entered, was last in scoring average and
accomplished an almost inconceivably pitiful statistical
double--he was last on the Tour in both driving distance and
driving accuracy. From that year through 1993, Verplank made the
same number of cuts--two--as he had surgeries on his right elbow.
Indeed, in the last few years, every time a young American
player was forecast as a sure thing, from Phil Mickelson to
Justin Leonard to Tiger Woods, someone would inevitably pipe up,
''Hey, look what happened to Scott Verplank.''
For Verplank to end up as he did, nearly out of golf, a lot of
things had to happen. A junior prodigy out of Dallas, Verplank
by the age of 20 was very simply the Man, the best amateur since
Ben Crenshaw or Jack Nicklaus, take your pick. He had a solid,
repeating golf swing, a cool killer instinct, a silken putting
stroke and a steely work ethic. While at Oklahoma State, where
he was a two-time All-America, Verplank won every big amateur
event in sight, including the 1984 U.S. Amateur and the 1986
NCAA titles, and played on the victorious U.S. Walker Cup team
in 1985. But what really set him apart was winning the '85
Western Open, making him the first amateur to earn a victory on
the PGA Tour since Gene Littler won the 1954 San Diego Open.
''Scott was so far ahead of the rest of us in college,''
remembers Davis Love III, who was at North Carolina when
Verplank was at Oklahoma State. ''He was so confident, quietly
cocky, kind of like Michael Jordan. He knew he was better than
you, and he knew you knew it. He was really an intimidator.''
But seemingly the minute Verplank turned pro after winning the
NCAAs, the magic ended. There were unseen cracks in his
foundation, and they widened under the new pressures. Burdened
by the weight of expectations, particularly his own, he pressed.
A diabetic since the age of nine who requires daily insulin
injections, Verplank struggled to regulate his condition under
the more intense logistical demands that being a touring pro
placed on him. From being perceived as a tunnel-visioned prodigy
with all the right moves, Verplank quickly began to look like a
lost 22-year-old kid. Indeed, he was the youngest player on the
Tour when he joined it.
Competitively, he was a bust. His rookie year he won only
$19,575 to rank 177th on the money list. The next year, he
improved only slightly, to $34,136, and ranked 173rd. He lost
the exempt status he had earned at the Western and had to go to
the qualifying school for the first time. Verplank responded to
the wake-up call, regaining his card and returning to the Tour
in 1988 with renewed purpose and the firsthand knowledge that
nothing in golf is ever guaranteed.
Still, he was missing cuts with regularity and had yet to post a
top-10 finish as a pro. Finally, in July 1988 at the Buick Open
in Grand Blanc, Mich., Verplank decided he had grown miserable
fighting the game and made a conscious effort to smile before
and after every shot he hit, regardless of the result. To those
used to Verplank's slit-eyed intensity, the smile was goofy and
artificial. But it worked. Remarkably, Verplank won in Grand
Blanc for his first pro victory.
It looked like Verplank was on track again, but he drifted back
into mediocrity. He struggled in 1989 and realized he was not
paying close enough attention to his diabetes. He made another
comeback in 1990, finishing a promising 47th on the money list,
and seemed to have come to grips with the burdens of
expectations and illness.
Naturally, that's when injury reared up and knocked Verplank
down again. Early in 1991 he experienced pain in his right elbow
as a result of a degenerative condition in the joint. He tried
to play with the pain, but only succeeded in destroying what
little faith he had left in his ability. ''When you play hurt,
every time you hit a bad shot it takes 10 good ones to restore
some confidence,'' he said. By the time Verplank finally agreed
to submit to arthroscopic surgery by Dr. Frank Jobe to remove
bone spurs in December '91, he had lost more than half of the
strength in his right arm.
''The easiest way to explain my problem is that it's like Bo
Jackson's hip,'' said Verplank. ''Except that you can't replace
He tried to play again in 1992, missing the cut in 12 of 13
events. Things were so dismal at that point that he actually
looked at his 58th-place finish at the B.C. Open, his best
finish in two years, as a bright spot. Verplank was becoming a
mental wreck, and his elbow still pained him. He underwent
surgery again at the end of the year.
This time, Verplank didn't play golf for 18 months. Instead, he
spent the time working out, rehabbing his arm, getting closer to
his wife, Kim, and their newborn son, Scott. Most of all, he
readjusted his perspective.
''I was pretty much dead to the world, as far as golf,'' says
Verplank. ''I didn't hit a shot for 12 months. But it allowed me
to spend the first 18 months of my son's life with him instead
of on the Tour. And it's the greatest thing that could have
happened. It changed my entire outlook.''
During his leave of absence, Verplank, who has a bachelor's
degree in business, contemplated getting another job, but never
lost hope that he would come back to the Tour. ''I had two or
three names of people I was going to call, but I never called
anybody,'' he says. ''I never thought seriously I wouldn't come
back and play. I liked to play too much, and I was too good at a
young age to just completely give up on it. All you have to do
is sit out for two years to realize how great it is just to play
In fact, it's entirely possible that by not playing, Verplank
became a better player. ''Absolutely,'' says Verplank. ''Golf is
now probably the fourth or fifth most important thing to me, as
opposed to the first, and that's helped. Because I'm the kind of
guy that I try so hard, that when golf was it, I couldn't
Both Verplank and Lehman are functioning now, in a way that for
the moment is keeping the enemies at bay. Expectation and
illness and injury didn't stop them, they made them stronger.
COLOR PHOTO:PHOTOGRAPHS BY JIM GUND [Tom Lehman]
TWO COLOR PHOTOS:PHOTOGRAPHS BY JIM GUND Trees stumped Austin (above), who finished fourth, and Rocco Mediate, who tied for eighth. [Woody Austin trying to hit ball out from under trees; Rocco Mediate attempting to hit ball around tree]
COLOR PHOTO:PHOTOGRAPHS BY JIM GUND After years of struggling with illness and injury, Verplank was revitalized by an 18-month leave. [Scott Verplank lining-up putt]