This is the seventh installment of eight articles looking back at USGA championships conducted at The Olympic Club in San Francisco, site of this year's U.S. Open. This piece focuses on Scott Simpson's 1987 U.S. Open triumph.
On the day Scott Simpson captured the 1987 U.S. Open at The Olympic Club, he took one look at the silver trophy and exclaimed, “There sure are some great names on here. It’s kind of hard to believe my name is going to be on there, too.”
Twenty-five years later, Simpson’s outlook on that magic day, when he became the incarnation of Jack Fleck or Billy Casper, hasn’t much changed. “Whenever I get the chance to watch the U.S. Open on television,” says Simpson, “I think to myself, ‘Wow, how did I ever win one of those?’ It’s still hard to believe sometimes.”
It might be hard for many to believe what happened on the final day of the 87th U.S. Open, when Simpson overtook sentimental and institutional favorite Tom Watson, unless you know a little about the history of Olympic Club, which even back then had a reputation for being hostile to legends.
Watson, the ’82 U.S. Open champion, had not won a tournament in three years and had not won a major in four. But he toured Olympic, just up the road from his alma mater, Stanford, like his old swashbuckling self. Unfortunately, Olympic was its old inhospitable self, and when Watson came up one stroke short of Simpson, he joined Ben Hogan and Arnold Palmer as golfing greats whose destiny meter ran out at the storied San Francisco layout.
A steady even-par 70 gave Watson a 2-under 278 total, four ahead of Seve Ballesteros and five over an equally capable group of contenders, including Bernhard Langer, Ben Crenshaw, Curtis Strange and reigning Masters champion Larry Mize. But Simpson, whose California roots – he grew up in San Diego and played collegiately at the University of Southern California – ran deeper than Watson’s, was just a bit better, particularly over the last nine holes. Thanks to three consecutive birdies and two miraculous par saves on the incoming holes, Simpson carded a 68 and 3-under 277 total for his only major title.
“I was definitely aware of Fleck beating Hogan and Casper beating Arnold,” said Simpson, recalling that cool June 19 day on Olympic’s Lake Course. “I even thought about that coming in, like, ‘Well, why not me?’ I didn’t quite think of myself in the same way. I wasn’t totally unknown. I had won earlier in the year. But later I realized that I kind of did the thing where the little guy beats the big guy.”
Simpson had come into that U.S. Open having won his third PGA Tour title earlier in the year at the Greater Greensboro Open. He was a two-time California Amateur champion and had been a two-time All-American at USC after winning back-to-back NCAA Championships in 1976-77.
But there were plenty of big guys that he had to contend with in addition to Watson – nearly all of them with majors on their résumés. Crenshaw opened with a 67 and led by a stroke over Raymond Floyd, Ballesteros and Tommy Nakajima. Watson’s sterling 65 gave him a share of the 36-hole lead at 3-under 137 with Mark Wiebe, who shot a 67. Among those a stroke behind at 138 was four-time U.S. Open champion Jack Nicklaus. Simpson sat at 139 after a 68.
Despite a 71, Watson led alone through 54 holes at 208, while Simpson, with a 70, was a stroke behind with Keith Clearwater, who tied the course record with a 64. Clearwater was paired with Watson for the final round, while Simpson played with Lennie Clements, a longtime golfing friend from San Diego.
Simpson, 56, looks back on that pairing as one of several breaks on the final day.
“I knew people were pulling for Watson … who doesn’t pull for Watson? But because I didn’t play with him the last day, I didn’t notice anyone pulling against me,” says Simpson. “And Lennie Clements was good pairing for me. We played junior golf together. A very nice guy; he made me feel comfortable that I could just go play my game.”
Simpson’s game had always been built around keeping it in play and making putts. But the second half of that equation had been missing through three rounds, so on Saturday night, after Watson’s 20-foot birdie on the final hole completed play, Simpson headed to the practice putting green and worked until nightfall.
“I must have putted for at least an hour. I felt like I wasn’t quite hitting through the putts because the greens were so fast, so I worked on finishing my stroke,” he says. “I made a ton of putts that last day.”
The key stretch, of course, started with his birdie run at the par-4 14th, when a 7-iron approach set up a 6-foot attempt that he calmly ran in. Three holes earlier, Simpson converted another 6-footer, this one for par, after his third shot from a greenside bunker looked like it was going to sail to the other side of the green only to be snagged by the flag. Watson only shrugged when he later heard about that fortuitous Fleck-like flick of fate bestowed upon Simpson. “That’s the game. I chipped in five years ago,” said Watson of his remarkable chip-in at the 71st hole at Pebble Beach Golf Links that gave him a two-stroke victory at the 1982 U.S. Open.
A 30-foot birdie from the back of the green at 14 restored Watson’s lead, but Simpson, wearing a pink vest, no glove and not a worry on his face, knocked an 8-iron 25 feet from the hole at 15 and caught the right edge with his putt to forge another tie. That deadlock didn’t last long because at the par-5 16th he ran in a 15-footer after placing a 9-iron approach left of the hole.
Nice run. He decided to look at the board, and, lo and behold, he now led.
All that came next was the biggest shot of the week, the one he remembers most, and it came at the long par-4 17th, where he was bunkered left in two shots and facing a nasty downhill shot for his third. He blasted it to 8 feet and then made it, of course. “The bunker shot was the shot of the tournament for me, especially under the circumstances,” said Simpson. “Sure, I made the putt, but that was a hard bunker shot. I kept my emotions in check pretty well.”
A safe par and he was in with a 68, tied for best round of the day, and a 277 total. Watson needed par at the closing hole to force a playoff. “I did not want a playoff with Tom Watson the next day,” Simpson says, chuckling.
It almost happened, but Watson hit a wedge that came up a bit short and spun back against the collar of the green, 45 feet from the hole. Nevertheless, he almost made the birdie. With the ball six feet from the hole, Watson raised his putter. Simpson figured it was in. Then the ball curled left and finished three inches shy. The U.S. Open belonged to Simpson.
“It’s great to relive those memories, but I wish I had done more, too. I had a good game for the U.S. Open,” said Simpson, who lost to the late Payne Stewart in a playoff in the 1991 championship at Hazeltine National in Chaska, Minn. “It’s something I’m real thankful for. And one of the great things that came out of that was that Larry Mize, who had won the Masters that year, he and I shared the same agent. So we played some golf together and got to be really good friends. That was a very cool thing.”
Something else that was cool was Watson, and that is the other great memory Simpson has of that day at Olympic Club.
“How Watson treated me afterwards was great,” Simpson says. “He couldn’t have been a better sport and more congratulatory at the end. He was just very classy what he told me. He sincerely congratulated me on playing great, and he said, ‘Nicklaus said to me in 1982 that he gave it his best shot and I played better. Well, I’m saying the same thing to you. I gave it my best and you played better.’ That really meant a lot to me how he handled that, especially knowing it was a tough loss for him. He was disappointed, but he couldn’t have been nicer. I admired Watson quite a bit, and I admired him even more after what he said to me.”
Simpson went on to win three more times on the PGA Tour and once on the Champions Tour. He competed in 19 U.S. Opens, made the cut in 17 of them, and finished in the top-25 on 10 occasions.
“Even though I didn’t win another one, I played well in a few others, and that meant a lot to me. It showed people that what happened at Olympic Club wasn’t just a one-time thing as far as chances to win it. I was good in the Open because there was such a premium on accuracy. I was a real patient player, who could handle making a bogey or even a double-bogey and bounce back. I loved that challenge. I loved golf when it was at its hardest.”
Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer whose articles have previously appeared on USGA websites.