With more than 200 victories in his competitive golf career, Paul Simson has learned how to take advantage of opportunities.
So when a golden opportunity crossed his 2011 schedule, Simson couldn’t resist.
Simson’s victory in the 2010 USGA Senior Amateur at Lake Nona Golf and Country Club in Orlando, Fla., last September earned the Raleigh, N.C., resident an exemption from local qualifying for the U.S. Open.
The 60-year-old Simson also plays in a social golf event, dubbed the Alternative Walker Cup (AWC) set for May 23-25 at three courses near Surrey, England, where it just so happens one of the 13 U.S. Open sectional qualifiers is scheduled for May 30 at Walton Heath Golf Club.
So, in the span of eight days, Simson will play three rounds of fun, social golf and after a brief respite, will try to claim a spot in the 2011 U.S. Open against a strong field of predominantly European Tour professionals, with a few elite amateurs sprinkled in. The size of the field and the number of available qualifying spots will be determined at the end of this week.
“I wouldn’t be trying to qualify if I didn’t think it can happen,” said Simson, who has qualified for one U.S. Open (1998 at The Olympic Club). “I don’t have any illusions about winning the U.S. Open but I do have hopes and I do think that it is possible for me to qualify. Obviously, when you get in the sectional, there are no pretenders there. You have to play very well. It can’t be just a good day; it’s got to be a great day for me. When I did qualify [at Sunnehanna Country Club in Johnstown, Pa., in 1998], it was one of the best days of qualifying that I’ve ever had. That day of golf was in the top five of days of golf that I’ve ever had. Despite that, I had to go through a two-hole playoff just to get in.
“I am playing well. I have been playing well and I certainly think I will continue to play well. Plus, the opportunity to be in the sectional as one of the perks of being Senior Amateur champion I find difficult to pass up.”
Simson, in fact, “warmed up” for his trans-Atlantic visit by winning his fifth North Carolina Senior Amateur on May 19 at his home club, North Ridge C.C. in Raleigh. In winning his 23rd Carolinas Golf Association title, he broke the championship scoring mark with rounds of 66-67-67 for a 15-under-par total of 201. He won by nine strokes.
Prior to the “business” of the overseas trip, Simson will engage with his golf friends in the 15th Alternative Walker Cup. He left North Carolina on May 20. The friendly competition began on May 23 at Luffenham Heath G.C. (south of Hull). On May 24, the group played at Royal North West Norfolk G.C., also known as Brancaster (southeast of Hull), and the final day of the AWC was at Woodhall Spa (south of Hull) on May 25.
“The good thing about the way the format is set, we’ll be finished on Wednesday,” Simson said. “I will probably play Friday and Sunday at Walton Heath for practice. Obviously, Walton Heath agrees with my game. I shot 70-69-69 in the British Senior Am there last year. I just enjoy the golf so much over there. I’ll be very competitive. I have high hopes of making it and being a 60-year-old in the U.S. Open field.”
The Alternative Walker Cup was started in 1997 by Brian Cartledge, a champion cricket player from Hull, England, and Chip Radford, a businessman from Raleigh, N.C., who suffered a fatal heart attack on the Sunday of the 2010 U.S. Open while playing tennis.
“He was the youngest of all of us, which is even more sobering,” Simson said. “This is the first match after that so we will have heavy hearts this year.”
As you can see, the competition is more about fellowship than it is about golf.
Simson and Dan Hughes, also of Raleigh, which is the sister city of Hull, England, are the only two who have played in all 14 previous AWCs. After the 21.5-18.5 win by the English this past week, the standings now read: USA 10 wins, UK 5 wins. “We split the first six years and then we won seven in a row until last year in Myrtle Beach, where they nipped us by a half-point,” Simson said. “The AWC Cup is in the hands of the Brits!”
The teams, which have competed in France and Portugal as well, play for a Scottish quaich, or drinking cup, Simson said.
“To be a member of the team you don’t necessarily have to be one of the best golfers – handicaps range from plus 3 to about 15 – but you have to ‘be in the moment’ the whole time you are there,” Simson said. “Conduct on and off the golf course are considered when we make our team picks.”
In the spirit of the event, Simson said that e-mail has been a good source of team-building and good-natured banter.
“We are stirring the pot like crazy,” Simson said in early May. “There are barbs going across the ocean on a daily basis. It’s getting heated. I’m busting the chops of my teammates more than my opponents.”
According to Simson, England has had as many as eight players but “some were sacked for not carrying on as much as they should have. We started with four and we went to five because we found that four players couldn’t be counted on to make the first tee. Enough said there?”
Stories from past AWCs abound, including a pre-9/11 USA Customs agent (a friend of Simson’s) holding UK competitors’ golf bags for more than 24 hours because of “suspicious grass seed on bags and shoes,” as well as a Team USA-purchased local newspaper advertisement for the match at Ganton Golf Club in England, which proclaimed, according to Simson, “that the English team would go down in flames.” Simson chuckles when he recalls the shock of the club after receiving a flood of calls for tickets.
England’s Cartledge recalls the time that Simson gave an English competitor 30 strokes in what he called “full lip service” and promptly lost.
“Cocky bugger,” Cartledge said of Simson. “We take every possible opportunity to take away his swagger. It is always a special occasion when we can get a hand in his pocket. Do not let him tell you it is rare because it does happen. I think it is fair to say that the fun is equally divided. We are like-minded people with good senses of humor who enjoy each other’s company. ”
Simson agreed. “We have had so much fun with it and formed long-lasting, lifetime friendships.”
The format is all matches are four points (one for each nine and two for the match) with 32 total points in play. According to Cartledge, “I have resurrected the battered trophy, which some claimed was damaged by American Airlines. It looks like hooligan behavior to me.”
This year's contest, Cartledge said, could have gone either way. Heavy winds were a factor.
After the fun and games, the heavy work started for Simson at Walton Heath.
“I have played six rounds at Walton Heath (2010 British Senior Amateur practice and championship) and will have at least two more in before we play the qualifier on May 30,” Simson said. “I am pretty familiar with the course and it seems to fit my game.”
Said Cartledge: "We all wish him well at Walton Heath. He certainly seems to be hitting the ball well and without constant banter in his ear could well make it."
Simson, who in 2010 became the first player to win the British Senior Amateur, the Canadian Senior Amateur and the USGA Senior Amateur in the same year, will likely have more than family members supporting him at Walton Heath.
“I am not sure how many of us will be going to Walton Heath,” Cartledge said of the English AWC team. “But he will have support there, believe me!”
Pete Kowalski is a manager of championship communications for the USGA. E-mail comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.