The PGA tour finally got back to golf last week in San Diego,
sort of. The good news was that the Buick Invitational actually
crowned a champion, local boy Scott Simpson. The bad news was
the way he won. Simpson all but clinched the victory while
sitting in the clubhouse eating a turkey sandwich as the rest of
the field was throwing up down the stretch. Among the would-be
contenders, only Skip Kendall could generate any momentum, and
he wound up handing Simpson the $378,000 winner's check by
blowing a three-footer on the first playoff hole. That was a
fitting end to a frustrating day.
Because of the incessant rain delays this month on Tour, the
Buick was shortened to 54 holes, and Sunday's action consisted
only of the remains of a third round that had begun the previous
afternoon. That left Simpson with a grand total of three holes
to play, which he took care of long before the TV audience, or
anyone else, tuned in. The most taxing part of his day then
became pretending not to be too excited by the other golfers'
misfortunes while he lounged in the players' dining area for the
next hour and a half, monitoring the telecast.
"It was a weird way to win a golf tournament, but I'll take it,"
Simpson said after the seventh victory of his 20-year career,
but his first since 1993. "It was really, really important that
we finished this tournament. The Tour's been under the gun after
what happened at Pebble Beach." (The AT&T Pebble Beach National
Pro-Am was rained out after 36 holes. A final round has been
scheduled for Aug. 17.) Like Puddle Beach, the Buick's story
line was dominated by the weather. Heavy rain early in the week
softened Torrey Pines and turned the sunny first round into a
breakneck birdiefest, especially among a flammable trio of
players in the same group, Davis Love III, Payne Stewart and Bob
Tway. Love took the early lead with an eight-birdie, one-eagle
62, while Tway was one of four golfers to shoot 63. "I felt like
I shot 80," Stewart said after his 66.
Before play even finished last Thursday, Arvin Ginn, the Tour's
tournament director, announced that all of the next day's tee
times were being moved up two hours in an attempt to complete
round 2 before a thunderous storm that was predicted for Friday
afternoon. Alas, the storm blew in early, and by noon the
saturated greens were unplayable. Play was suspended for the
day, stranding 146 golfers on the course. Thus the second round
was completed on Saturday morning, with leader Steve Pate two
strokes up on his nearest competitor, Kendall, and eight ahead
of Simpson. After the cut was made, the golfers teed it back up
and played until dark. Heavy rain on Saturday night and Sunday
morning (and a dire forecast for Monday) tempered the Tour
officials' lust to play 72 holes, and the stage was set for
Sunday's fractured final round.
Simpson had actually inserted himself into the picture on
Saturday afternoon as he torched Torrey Pines for seven birdies
in his 15 holes, thanks to a magic wand. He took just 19 putts,
due in large part to his knowledge of the tricky seaside greens.
Simpson, 42, was born in San Diego and makes his home there, and
he has been playing Torrey Pines since he was 14. During much of
his youth he caddied there, including loops a couple of times at
the San Diego Open, the forerunner of the Buick. Though he won
27 junior events in the talent-rich area--some at Torrey
Pines--Simpson had contended for the Buick only once before, in
1996, when he tied for third. "Next to the major championships,
this is the one tournament I've always dreamed about winning,"
he said on Saturday evening.
Last season a reasonable dream for Simpson was simply making a
cut, which happened only 16 times in 25 starts. Fighting bad
mechanics and a mushrooming apathy, Simpson had the worst year
of his career, free-falling to 149th on the money list, the
first time he had failed to crack the top 125. (With the
expiration of a 10-year exemption from his 1987 U.S. Open
victory, this year Simpson cashed in his one-time-only free pass
as one of the Tour's top 50 career money winners.) "I wasn't
that motivated," says Simpson. "I guess I was getting to that
age when I didn't want to be out there that much. I wasn't
practicing, so when I did play, it was frustrating. I had been
at it a long time, and I was tired."
Simpson is known on Tour for his religious faith and his
commitment to his family, and last year he skipped large chunks
of the schedule to road-trip with his wife, Cheryl, daughter,
Brea, 15, and son, Sean, 11. They went to spring training with
the Padres, vacationed at Pismo Beach, Calif., and holed up in a
cabin on a lake in Wisconsin. "The time away from golf gave me a
chance to reflect on some things," says Simpson, who is also
regarded as one of the Tour's deep thinkers. Unlike many of his
colleagues, he stuck around college long enough to earn a degree
in business administration from USC, and in the media guide,
under special interests, he lists, among other things, reading.
"I was reminded of what a privilege it is to play on Tour and
that I owed it to myself and my family to stay dedicated while
I'm still out here."
He worked hard this off-season with his coach, Kip Puterbaugh,
to find his old swing, searching for the simplicity and tempo
that had worked in the past. "This is the best he's ever swung,"
Puterbaugh said on Sunday. On the greens Simpson has also moved
the ball up in his stance and closer to his body, with dramatic
results. Still, the big change is in his 'tude.
"This year Scott is dedicated to having fun out there, which
wasn't always the case last year," says Cheryl. His emotionless
game face notwithstanding, Simpson is at his best when he's
loose, which is why he loves to play the straight man for Bill
Murray every year at Pebble Beach. With the intention of having
a good time, he talked his neighbor, Stan Humphries, the San
Diego Chargers quarterback, into caddying for him at the Buick.
This week at the Hawaiian Open, Brea will be on the bag. None of
this, however, minimizes Simpson's desire, which is palpable.
On Sunday morning he came out "like a man on a mission," said
Humphries. "He was locked in." Having begun the third round on
the 10th tee, Simpson was finishing up on the front nine. On the
453-yard par-4 7th, Simpson just missed the green with his
approach but chipped in for birdie to get to 12 under. "A huge
rush," he said.
At the 8th he three-putted from 35 feet. "A real downer," he said.
At the par-5 9th Simpson stuck an eight-iron shot six feet from
the hole and drilled the putt to get back to 12 under. "There
were so many guys near the lead and so much golf to play, I
didn't think it would hold up," he said, "but I wasn't going
He hunkered down with his family and a handful of friends and
watched in disbelief as one player after another gave away the
tournament. First up was Tiger Woods, who had been in the hunt
ever since a second-round 66. But on Sunday he missed a
2 1/2-footer for par at the 15th and a short birdie putt at 17
and wound up tied for third, one stroke shy of the playoff.
"Dodged a bullet there," said Simpson.
Love's fade was even more egregious. He was 12 under with six
holes to play, including a pair of docile par-5s, when he
developed a terminal case of the hooksies. Two bogeys later he
too finished in third. "Really thought it was Davis's
tournament," said Simpson.
Kevin Sutherland, groping for his first Tour victory, could have
joined the playoff if he had made an eight-footer for birdie on
the 54th hole, but his putt never scared the cup. However, his
playing partner, Kendall, got up and down from a greenside
bunker for a clutch birdie and strong back nine of 32. Sudden
Futzing around the locker room, Simpson grabbed his putter and
sprinted to the practice green to relocate his touch. "Don't
want to pull a Kenny Perry," he said, referring to the '96 PGA,
when Perry chose to watch from a TV tower instead of warming up
for a playoff he would eventually lose.
On the shortish par-5 18th, both Simpson and Kendall drove
safely, with Kendall away. A 33-year-old journeyman from
Milwaukee who had never finished higher than third, Kendall hit
a heroic three-wood to 20 feet. Simpson bombed his approach
pin-high but into some deep weeds right of the green. After
flopping adroitly to four feet, Simpson nailed the putt with the
nerve of someone half his age. Kendall, meanwhile, had left his
eagle attempt stressfully short, and the putt that followed spun
"This is a great thrill," a moist-eyed Simpson said while
standing on the 18th green. His father, Joe, was at his side
weeping happily. It was suggested to Simpson that this win
should elevate his expectations, particularly with the U.S.
Open's return this summer to the Olympic Club in San Francisco,
the site of his greatest triumph. This brought a grin.
"I wasn't sure if I was ever going to win again. I think I'm
going to take it one tournament at a time," he said, offering
what should be a refrain for the rest of the star-crossed West
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK PERFECT PITCH Simpson waited an hour and a half for the playoff, then won by getting up and down for birdie on the first hole. [Scott Simpson golfing]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK WATER WORLD Torrey Pines took a pounding and was often unplayable, but no one wanted to sign off on a rainout. [Back view of golfer taking shot while others stand under umbrellas]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK [See caption above--boy placing "NO FISHING" sign under "GREEN CLOSED" sign on rain-soaked golf course]
"There were so many guys near the lead and so much golf to play,
I didn't think [12-under] would hold up."
"The Tour's been under the gun after what happened at Pebble
Beach," Simpson said.