- The Washington Times - Friday, June 16, 2000

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. Earlier in the week, Bobby Clampett was just a nice little story. Former touring pro, now NBC golf analyst, returns to hometown course to play in U.S. Open as surprise qualifier. Boy, did the Northern California papers lap that one up.

But yesterday Clampett became much more than a nice little story. By shooting a 3-under 68 over 18 magical holes, he earned himself a share of fourth place after the first day of the centennial Open. And before you say, "The guy doesn't have a chance," remember that Johnny Miller stepped out of the TV booth six years ago at 46 and won the AT&T; National Pro-Am on the very same property. If it happened for him …

OK, it's a long shot, a veritable three-quarters-court heave. Especially with Tiger Woods off and running with a 65. Clampett has played in only one tournament in the past 21 months an event on the Buy.com Tour that netted him $500 and he considers himself a full-time daddy and "once-a-month golfer."

Heck, he isn't even buying into his Cinderella story at this point. "I came here with no expectations," he said, "and I still have no expectations." But if you press him on it he will admit he has thought about Miller's '94 miracle and about Ben Crenshaw's improbable victory in the '95 Masters.

"Watching Ben on that back nine … the things that happened," he said. "You can't describe it as anything other than divine intervention."

Divine intervention. That would be a pretty good description of Clampett's 68. He didn't miss a fairway or a green for 10 holes "it was like playing golf in heaven," he said and he made only one bogey all day. After a long birdie putt dropped on No. 9, he just looked up at the sky, his eyes brimming with tears.

All day long, Clampett fought his emotions. After all, Pebble Beach is a course he played as a kid, a course his high school in neighboring Monterrey used for matches. "We'd never play 18 holes," he said. "We'd always play 12, or whatever the daylight would allow."

When the Open was held at Pebble in '82, Clampett tied for third behind Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus at just 22. Great things were expected of him. I remember Nicklaus coming to Washington that year to compete in the Kemper, and he singled out Clampett (and Hal Sutton, if memory serves) as a star of the future.

Bobby also had personality sometimes too much personality. At the '79 Open at Inverness, he played with David Edwards on the final day as a non-competing marker Edwards wouldn't have had a partner otherwise and entertained the crowd with drives from his knees and a putt between his legs. The USGA, never big on laughs, pulled him off the course.

But after a strong first two years on the Tour in '81 (14th on the money list) and '82 (17th), Clampett began to regress. By '84 he had found God. By '95 he had found NBC. He had tried to make changes in his game, to continue evolving and improving as a golfer, and "for whatever reason, I couldn't do it," he said.

So he channeled his love of the game into his TV work which he's quite good at, by the way. He's glib, insightful, kind of a less sacrilegious Gary McCord. Still, he thought about playing again, perhaps on the Senior Tour in another decade. Earlier this year, he and NBC colleague Ken Venturi were having dinner, and Clampett said, "Kenny, what would I have to do to make your Presidents Cup team?" (Venturi is serving as captain this fall.)

"Win the Open," Venturi replied.

"OK, Kenny," Clampett said. "That's my dream. That's what I'm aiming for. I'm going to play one tournament this year and see if I can make your Presidents Cup team."

That was the easy part. The hard part was surviving local and regional qualifying. He barely passed the first test as an alternate, but then he put two nice rounds together at Woodmont the day after the Kemper (68-67) to earn his ticket to Pebble.

And here he is, three strokes back of Tiger and "hitting shots I've never been able to hit before." Of course, he said jokingly, "I've been working very hard on my game for two weeks now." He's particularly excited about getting "my length back." It's hard to win the Open if you're constantly pulling a fairway wood out of your bag.

But don't ask Clampett about making a comeback. He's "not even close" to thinking about it. Don't ask him about winning the Open, either not with a swing he describes as "unpolished" and "not tested."

"I know I have to play my A-plus game to be in contention here," he said. "I'm just going to try to keep hitting fairways and greens and one-putting." He also finds himself thinking back, for added strength, to his experience here in '82, when he was young and promising and nipping at Watson and Nicklaus' heels. He did that Bobby Clampett. That was him.

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