TULSA, Okla. — This year’s first three major championships were won by first-time major winners — Zach Johnson, Angel Cabrera and Padraig Harrington. Why not go for the Grand Slam?
Enter Scott Verplank, who shot 66 Friday to move to four under and the top of the leaderboard. In some ways, he would be a surprising pick to win the 89th PGA Championship. He’s 43, he’s never even sniffed winning a major and he’s a self-confessed short hitter. But he was on many experts’ short list of favorites this week for the simple reason that length doesn’t matter at Southern Hills — or Southern Hells, as some are calling it as they melt in the 100-degree heat.
Players are forced to lay up on some of the dogleg par-4s, so much of the round turns into a par-3 contest from 150 to 180 yards. Southern Hills favors a straight hitter who hits precise irons, can work the ball and putts well. That’s a perfect description of Verplank, a gritty veteran who has overcome a variety of elbow problems and diabetes to carve out a successful professional career.
Verplank hit a high note earlier this year when he won the EDS Byron Nelson Championship. Nelson was his mentor and his friend. The story is that Nelson called a teen-aged Verplank, who grew up playing in Dallas, out of the blue and asked if he’d like to work with the great man. A stunned Verplank agreed, and they met on the range at Preston Trails, a tiny club in Dallas, to hit balls. They were told by a club official to beat it — they weren’t members. Yes, the legendary Byron Nelson got the boot, a black mark the club will never live down.
A long friendship ensued, and it was perhaps the emotional peak of 2007 when Verplank won Nelson’s tournament in Verplank’s hometown, looked up to the sky after he holed the winning putt and mouthed, “Thank you.”
Another emotional moment came after the win. He hugged Nelson’s widow, Peggy, who told him, “Byron picked the winner.” Pass the hankies, please.
It might be tempting to suggest that Nelson is still helping his protege, but the fact is that Verplank has rediscovered his game ever since he changed from graphite to steel shafts in his irons before the Nelson. Here is Verplank’s post-Players summer: seventh, eighth, seventh (U.S. Open), fifth, 57th (British Open) and ninth (Firestone).
He is playing well, and he continued that streak the first two days at Southern Hills. He had only an even-par 70 to show for his first-round efforts, but he played a near flawless second round that featured four birdies and no bogeys.
His 66 was the lowest round Verplank has posted in 14 PGA Championships. His record in this event isn’t stellar. In fact, it’s actually kind of bad. He tied for seventh in 2001, and that was his only top-30 finish. He missed the cut in seven of 13 previous tries.
This week, it’s almost a home game. Verplank played his college golf at Oklahoma State, about 90 minutes away, and he still lives in Edmond, Okla. So he’s a native Texan but an honorary Oklahoman. And no, he’s not commuting from home this week.
“No, I lost a rotor on my helicopter, one of the blades broke,” joked Verplank. “It’s in the shop.”
Of course, Verplank isn’t anywhere near the own-your-own-aircraft category on the PGA Tour. He was projected to be a phenom when he won the 1985 Western Open as an amateur, and he found success early as a pro, winning the 1988 Buick Open. But physical problems arose, including a bad elbow that reduced him to the butt of jokes in the early ’90s.
In ’91 and ’92, he played 39 tournaments and made the cut only twice. It was a long road back after Dr. Frank Jobe performed surgery on his elbow, but Verplank did recover. By ’97, he was back to being a steady money-winner, raking in $2.7 million. In 2000, he returned to the winners circle in Reno and added the Canadian Open the next year.
He was a captain’s pick for last year’s Ryder Cup team and was the only American to have an unbeaten record (2-0) in a stinging defeat. Verplank has always been confident in his ability. The young Verplank, his peers say, was annoyingly cocky. The years have humbled him, but he remains sure of his ability. That’s why he’s not just another early round rabbit at the PGA. He’s a serious threat to win.
He’s straight enough and he’s tough enough. And he doesn’t take himself too seriously, which is nice. Asked why so many players over 40 were in contention, he answered, “Maybe it’s the Human Growth Hormone everybody is taking.”
In reality, Southern Hills is a golf course that requires patience, knowledge and actual golf skills. It’s not just about avoiding the tall trees that line the fairways, it’s about having the precision to place the ball in the correct portion of the fairways so you can attack the pins, which often wind up behind the overhanging limbs of massive trees.
Another reason to like Verplank — he’s got life and golf in perspective. Those hard times in the ’90s made him stronger and wiser.
“I’ve been so far down at the bottom of the barrel, I know what that’s like, and you can only beat yourself up so much,” he said. “I’ve been through all that and beat myself up. Now I’m just trying to give myself a better chance.”
Verplank’s light-orange golf shirt was soaked dark orange from Friday morning’s heat. He was going to go back out and work on his putting a bit because he wasn’t happy with his stroke. Then he was going to go back to the house, where he is staying with his wife, four kids, nanny and father, and probably go swimming with his 3-year-old daughter.
“There’s never a dull moment when you’ve got four kids,” he said with a smile. “As soon as I leave the golf course, I pretty much do what I’m instructed to do.”