Scott Verplank deserves a hand after squeezing out a 1-under-par 69 Thursday morning in the opening round of the 37th U.S. Senior Open. But he’d rather have a new hand, or at least part of a wrist, which ceased functioning properly five years ago.
Which makes his efforts on a sauna-like day at Scioto Country Club all the more remarkable.
Winner of the 1984 U.S. Amateur, Verplank has battled a series of injuries throughout his career, some related to diabetes he has had since childhood. But the ligament injury at the base of his left hand that he had surgically repaired in 2011 has become a source of constant pain and frustration.
“They said they could make it as good as new,” he said of the reconstructive tendon surgery he underwent that September. “It’s not the doctor’s fault. It just doesn’t want to get better.”
Winner of five PGA Tour events, Verplank, 52, was looking forward to a promising senior career. He remembers clearly how he went from contending for major titles to dealing with major problems.
“For just about all of the 2011 season it was bothering me, but it wasn’t something that was holding me back,” he said. “I lost to Phil [Mickelson] in Houston coming down to the last three holes, and then I finished fourth at the PGA Championship [at Atlanta Athletic Club] after making double bogey on the 17th hole while Keegan Bradley makes a 40-footer.
“I’m playing like that, and then two weeks later I can’t play at all. I can’t hang onto the golf club. And I’ve gone to the best doctors in the world, had it operated on, but this is the best it has been, and it’s just not very good.”
The injury is so mysterious that he can’t even describe how it affects him.
“It doesn’t hurt, but it doesn’t function like it did before. It isn’t strong, so I can’t trust it,” he said.
And, yet, there he is on the leader board with one of eight under-par scores in the morning wave and three behind ultra-fit Vijay Singh, portending a better showing in his third start in the U.S. Senior Open after finishing 50th last year and missing the cut the year before at his home course, Oak Tree National in Edmond, Okla.
How does he stay competitive? Fundamentally, his golf swing remains sound, and he still putts better than most of his peers. “I hit just enough good shots to make a score,” he explained.
Like his birdie at the ninth, where he lasered a 7-iron at the flag and watched the ball take a hard bounce and stop 30 feet away. Good shot. The next one was better as he converted the third of his four birdies against three bogeys.
Only three players have won the U.S. Amateur and the U.S. Senior Open – Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Bruce Fleisher, who just so happens to have won his Amateur title at Scioto in 1968. Despite his litany of injuries, Verplank always has exhibited a game built for U.S. Open setups. He knows how to score, and he has the ability to manage his game and control his golf ball.
That is precisely the formula he must employ at Scioto. But, he shrugs his shoulders when asked if he can continue the control he exhibited Thursday. “If I play my game, then, yeah,” he said with a smile.
“If I play well, I expect to have a chance,” he added. “At this stage of my life, this is easily the biggest tournament we play, in my mind. If you’re going to try to win one, then this is the one you want to win. It would mean a great deal, especially with the things going on with me now.”
Yes, especially with that.
Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer who frequently contributes to USGA websites.