Simons Almost Said U.S. Open Title
Amateur Came Within 3 Strokes Of 1971 Championship At Merion
March 14, 2005
By David Shefter, USGA
Far Hills, N.J. - The name Jim Simons is not one to likely resonate with many of today's young golfers. Many either simply don't have a sense of history or only recognize the names of pre-moderns Hogan, Snead, Jones and post-moderns Tiger, Phil, Ernie and Vijay.
In fact, mention Simons and they might think you are talking about the television personality of the hit television show "American Idol."(His name is Simon).
But 34 years ago, you can bet the golf world had heard of Jim Simons. Or at least his performance at the U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club in the Philadelphia suburb of Ardmore, Pa., sent a lot of fans scurrying to his page in the Players' Guide for more information.
Who was this unknown and where did he come from?
In that June of 1971, the unheralded 21-year-old rising senior at Wake Forest University
||Amateur Jim Simons held the 54-hole lead at the 1971 U.S. Open, but wound up tied for fifth. (USGA Archives)
invoked the spirits of Francis Ouimet, Bob Jones, Chick Evans and Johnny Goodman, all amateurs who had won the U.S. Open in days of yore, the latter the last to accomplish the feat in 1933. Simons' performance that week was one of the finest by an amateur in the post-World War II era. He owned a two-stroke lead heading into the final round, only to shoot a 6-over 76 and tie for fifth, three shots behind Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino, both of whom squared off in an 18-hole playoff on Monday to decide the championship (Trevino won).
Last year, Simons' name returned to the pages of newsprint and sound bites on television and radio when University of New Mexico standout Spencer Levin of California tied for 13th at Shinnecock Hills, the best showing by an amateur at the U.S. Open since 1971. Simons' name also circulated through the media room in 1998 at The Olympic Club when Matt Kuchar tied for 14th after flirting with a top-five finish (he was in fourth position after 36 holes).
Since World War II, only Nicklaus has had a better U.S. Open finish as an amateur. In 1960 at Cherry Hills Country Club, he was in a three-way battle with Arnold Palmer and Ben Hogan, but shot a second-nine 39 and finished second behind Palmer. A year later, Nicklaus finished fourth at Oakland Hills Country Club before turning pro and winning the title in 1962, defeating Palmer in a playoff at Oakmont Country Club.
But Simons' showing was a bit unexpected. The two-time All-American wasn't even the best player on his college team. That distinction went to 1970 U.S. Amateur champion Lanny Wadkins, and it was Wadkins who was considered the top amateur contender at the 1971 Open. The other top amateur, 1969 U.S. Amateur champion Steve Melnyk, decided not to go through sectional qualifying after he defeated Simons, 3 and 2, in the 36-hole final of the British Amateur at Carnoustie the first week of June, claiming fatigue.
Near-Miss At Sectionals
Simons, meanwhile, almost didn't qualify for the Open. Like Melnyk and Wadkins, he had just returned from a whirlwind two-week excursion in Scotland where the USA Walker Cup Team lost to Great Britain and Ireland at St. Andrews, the first loss for the Americans in 33 years. The adjustment from the cold, windy and rainy conditions, along with playing with the smaller golf ball (at that time The R&A permitted the use of a 1.62 diameter ball vs. the 1.68 ball that is now used universally) and mental fatigue had taken its toll on Simons.
His swing was bit out of kilter and it showed during the first nine holes of his 36-hole sectional qualifier at the Pittsburgh Field Club.
|Paired with eventual winner Lee Trevino in the third round, Jim Simons shot an impressive 5-under-par 65 to take a two-stroke lead into the final 18 holes at the 1971 U.S. Open. (USGA Archives)
"I was seven over after nine holes and I thought about quitting," said Simons, who is from the Pittsburgh suburb of Butler, but now resides in Jacksonville, Fla. "But it's not in my nature to [quit]. I told myself I would go a little while longer until it's no longer possible for me to qualify."
Yet Simons rediscovered his game at the turn and wound up earning one of the seven qualifying spots. The 1971 Open would be his third, following 1967 at Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, N.J., and 1968 at Oak Hill Rochester, N.Y. He missed the cut as a 17-year-old in 1967, but made it the following year.
Nevertheless, Simons arrived at Merion feeling a little bit winded. He had played the two-day Walker Cup (0-2 record) and endured eight match-play rounds at the British Amateur (he beat future U.S. Open champion and Walker Cup roommate Tom Kite in the semifinals, 1 up) before hopping a plane back to Pittsburgh for the Open qualifier.
"I got to Philadelphia and my muscles felt like marshmallows," said Simons.
Confidence Takes Over Once Open Commences
However, all the golf had hardened Simons' intestinal fortitude to the point where he felt supremely confident. Going from the winter-like conditions of Scotland to the warmth of the eastern Pennsylvania summer felt like paradise.
"It was 80 degrees, the wind wasn't blowing and the sun was out," said Simons. "I was going, 'Man, this is so easy.' "
Paired with Tom Weiskopf, who would win the British Open two years later, Simons posted rounds of 71-71 to easily make the cut along with four other amateurs: Wadkins, Ben Crenshaw, Pennsylvania native James Masserio (1965 U.S. Junior champion) and Danny Yates. The five amateurs to play that weekend during an Open continues to be unmatched.
It was on Saturday that Simons raised the eyebrows of the golf establishment. Playing alongside Trevino, he fashioned a brilliant 5-under 65, with seven birdies and two bogeys, to grab a two-stroke lead over Nicklaus.
"That kid can play a little bit," Trevino told the media. "He's got a lot of good shots. He showed me something, he's solid. And he didn't play any lucky round. I'll tell you one thing he made me think a little more. He made me play golf to shoot 69. I didn't want any amateur making me look bad."
Weiskopf gushed, "Simons is better than Melnyk or Wadkins or any amateur in the game today."
And when the pundits were all but ready to hand Nicklaus the trophy on Saturday night, thus giving the youngster no chance, the Golden Bear retorted: "Don't come around with this, 'All you've got to beat is an amateur' stuff. Anything can happen. And don't think an amateur can't win, especially an amateur who can shoot 65 on this golf course."
Hanging In Despite Enormous Pressure
Nonetheless, the media expected Simons to tumble hard on Sunday, especially since he would be paired with Nicklaus. Two years earlier, amateur Marty Fleckman carried a lead into the final round at Baltusrol only to shoot an 80. In 1954, Billy Joe Patton shared the 54-hole lead, also at Baltusrol, but shot a 73 and wound up in a tie for sixth. Even the great Nicklaus, twice a U.S. Amateur champion, had faltered down the stretch of two Opens.
"I don't know if I've had the experience enough to win the Open," said Simons, "not with Jack Nicklaus breathing down my neck tomorrow."
Simons, however, found an inner calm that week, even with the enormous pressure towering over him. The international experience of the Walker Cup, playing in the tough Scottish conditions and college battles against the likes of Wadkins had steadied his nerves.
"I think that was the most composed I've ever been at any time in my career," said Simons, who went on to win three times on the PGA Tour, including the 1978 Memorial when he was paired with Nicklaus in the final round. "Maybe it was me being a little bit naÃ¯ve."
As one might expect, Simons tossed and turned most of the night. The next day, the nerves showed immediately when he put his crew-neck on backward. It quickly caught the eye of his roommate Wadkins.
"Lanny told me, 'Hey Jim, are you really nervous?' " said Simons. "At the time, I'm not thinking about how I am putting my clothes on. Sure enough, it was on wrong. But I am glad he warned me before I left the room."
It would be a harbinger of things to come. Since Simons was making the five-hour drive back to Pittsburgh following the round, he checked out of the hotel on Sunday morning. With his golf clubs, suitcase and other stuff in hand, he suddenly couldn't find his car in the parking lot. For 20 minutes, he wandered around with this added weight trying to locate his vehicle. His first instinct was that the car had been stolen. But through all the excitement of shooting a 65 and doing the press conferences, he simply had forgotten where he parked it.
"I guess it was because I was so caught up the night before because of the position I was in," said Simons. "What I should have done is brought the stuff back into the lobby before looking. My muscles were quivering for awhile. That was the first time that I had any doubt that I might not be as confident as I was leading up to the Open. I had that feeling most of the day, even though I maintained the lead."
To the shock of everyone Simons didn't wilt under the enormous pressure. With nine holes left he still had a one-stroke lead until a bogey at the 10th hole put him back into a tie with Nicklaus and Trevino. He fell out of the lead when he bogeyed 14, but he had birdie putts at 15, 16 and 17. He just missed on all three.
Were the nerves kicking in?
"I remember putting well, even the last day," said Simons. "After the round, Nicklaus put his arm around me and said, 'Jimmy, you didn't make a nervous stroke all day.'
"I felt I could win the Open all the way through. The thing that happened to me the last day that didn't happen the first three days was I was a fraction off on my tee shots and I caught, not the deep rough, but the [intermediate] rough, which in a U.S. Open with hard greens, you don't get the ball close to the hole because you can't control the spin. That was the story of the day. I just was a little bit off."
Case in point, the 72nd hole. Simons knew he slightly pulled his tee shot on the difficult par 4, perhaps 5 feet from where he wanted to hit the ball. Because it's a blind tee shot, Simons never saw where the ball landed on the right-to-left sloping fairway. The ball took a horrendous kick to the left and found the thick rough.
"The marshal told me, 'I'm very sorry, that's the worst kick I've seen on a drive all week,' " said Simons, who needed a birdie to tie Trevino who was in the clubhouse. Nicklaus was also tied for the lead at the time.
Knowing he needed a 3, Simons gambled by trying to lash a 3-wood from the thick rough, only to pop it up into the fairway, leaving him a 9-iron approach for his third shot. The approach bounced over the green into more rough where he proceeded to make a heartbreaking double-bogey 6.
"The only thing that went through my mind was to go for it," said Simons. "I was playing to win. I wasn't thinking money because I was an amateur."
Simons Earns Low-Amateur Honors
Simons settled for a tie for fifth to earn low-amateur honors, a distinction he would repeat the following year at Pebble Beach Golf Links when he posted one of two par or better rounds on Sunday (he shot 72) to move from 55th position to a tie for 15th. Only Nicklaus has posted better back-to-back performances by an amateur in the Open over the past 45 years.
He turned pro later that year and went on to three PGA Tour victories until physical ailments - he was bothered by nagging shoulder problems - forced him away from the game and into business as a stock broker.
Even though an amateur hasn't won the U.S. Open since Goodman in '33, Simons doesn't see why it couldn't happen again. Of course, it would take a special player with the right blend of talent, nerves and confidence. Woods couldn't pull it off and he completed one of the greatest amateur careers in the post World War II era. Maybe reigning U.S. Amateur champion Ryan Moore will challenge this summer at Pinehurst. Or, perhaps, Levin, will have a repeat effort of 2004.
After all, in one magical week in 1971, Simons almost did it.
David Shefter is a USGA staff writer. E-mail him with questions or comments at email@example.com .