- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 13, 2001

TULSA, Okla. There are orange baseball caps everywhere here at Southern Hills Oklahoma State fans whoDAN

DALYremember, many of them, when OSU alum Scott Verplank was the Tiger Woods of the mid-'80s. Like Tiger, Verplank was a U.S. Amateur champion (in '84). Like Tiger, he captured the NCAA title ('86). The thing that set him apart, though, was his victory in the '85 Western Open while still in college. Not even Tiger managed that.

It was a pretty big deal when it happened. An American amateur hadn't won on the PGA Tour in 29 years, since Doug Sanders took the '56 Canadian Open. On top of that, the Western is a prestigious event that always draws a strong field unlike, say, the Northern Telecom Open, the tournament Phil Mickelson won as an amateur in '91.

Yes, Verplank was quite the sensation after he beat Jim Thorpe in a playoff at Butler National. He was seen as a possible heir to Tom Watson, whose career was beginning to wind down by then. He had talent, he had grit he seemed destined for success.

But while phenoms like Woods and Mickelson went right on winning when they turned pro, Verplank took a much rockier path. He got his second Tour victory in '88 at the Buick Open, but it was more than 12 years before he got his third. Far from being the Next Great One, he was looking like an early prototype of Robert Gamez a player flashed while still young but then, strangely, got worse instead of better.

"I've had a lot of different things happen," Verplank said after his practice round for the U.S. Open yesterday.

And, in fairness, he has. The nadir was in '91 and '92, when he missed 37 of 39 cuts because of an ailing elbow that eventually required surgery. All along, he battled diabetes and the worry, fatigue and inconvenience that go with it. Over the years, though, the medicines have gotten better, and Verplank has found one that has made his life more livable and his golf more consistent. Witness his 18th-place finish on the money list in '98, his 22nd-place finish last year and 19th-place standing so far this year.

Just last month he was second in the Byron Nelson (after winning the Reno-Tahoe Open in 2000). He's not the dominant player people envisioned him being during his college days, but his name regularly pops up on leader boards.

"This is probably the best I've played early in the year," he says of his four top-five finishes. At times such as when he shot a 62 in the fourth round of the Hope or when he shot another 62 in the first round of the Nelson he has resembled the world-beater of '85. He still hits the ball about as straight as anyone off the tee. (That explains his four top-25 finishes in the U.S. Open, where the fairways are skinnier than Calista Flockhart.)

Southern Hills is hardly his home course he grew up in Edmond, on the other side of the state but it's a familiar one. He figures he has played here "a dozen times" before this week and thinks "the course sets up great for me if I play well, that is." A little dry Oklahoma humor there. But seriously, folks, if you're looking for a dark horse and after Tiger, they all seem like dark horses Verplank wouldn't be a bad guy to put a few quid on. The crowd will definitely be in his corner. And if he gets anything going, the place will probably resemble an OSU pep rally.

You look at the latest prodigy, Sergio Garcia, and wonder how it will go for him. After introducing himself to the world in spectacular fashion at the '99 PGA, finishing second to Tiger while still in his teens, Sergio hasn't exactly reinvented the game. In fact, he hadn't won in nearly two years, in the U.S. or in Europe, when he triumphed at Colonial recently. He followed that up with a tie for second at the Memorial, though, so maybe he's over his growing pains. Tiger could certainly use some more competition.

But as Verplank has reminded us, there are no guarantees. Early flashes are just that flashes. Still, he says, don't believe for a second this pap that there can be a downside to them (e.g. saddling the young player with unrealistic expectations).

"Anytime you can pull off something like that while you're still in college, how can that not be a great thing?" he asks. "The only pressure I've ever felt is the pressure I've put on myself."

Scott Verplank turns 37 next month. Unless he manages the greatest second act in golf history, he ain't going to the Hall of Fame. But he's still in there swinging profitably, if not necessarily prominently. He's a working golfer, and that's not such a bad thing to be.

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