EDMOND — In 1985, Scott Verplank won the Western Open. It wasn't a complete stunner. One of the greatest junior golfers ever, Verplank was a four-time All-American at Oklahoma State. He was the NCAA individual medalist and U.S. Amateur champion.
Still it had been 29 years — 1956 — since an amateur had won a PGA Tour event.
Born and raised in Dallas, Verplank was destined to be one of the PGA Tour's rising stars.
Instead, his story caromed down a new path following an abnormal number of injuries. Being diagnosed with diabetes as a child was another variable.
Throughout his pro career, Verplank has experienced exhilarating highs and mentally challenging lows.
Enduring some tough breaks, Verplank rebounded to win three more PGA Tour events and has collected $24 million in career earnings.
Verplank's perseverance also will provide a surreal moment next summer at the 2014 U.S. Senior Open. He turns 50 the day before the opening round at Oak Tree National, his home course.
Over the years, he's played an estimated 700 rounds on the Pete Dye designed course, not including times he played six or nine holes here and there.
“It will be a lot of fun,” Verplank said. “What a great deal to get to play on your home golf course. Obviously you have some sort of home course advantage, but that doesn't score for you. You still have to go out and play good. You still have to compete like everybody else.
“One benefit I'm looking forward to is I can quit trying to beat the twenty-something kids.”
Willie Wood, an Oak Tree member who is on the Champions Tour, said his locker mate's senior tour debut will be a huge story.
“It's wonderful for him,” Wood said. “He's struggled at times with injuries, but is such a tough competitor. He's such a hard worker. Despite all the injuries, he's still had a great career on the PGA Tour.”
Constantly battling health issues
As always, health will be the key issue for Verplank next summer at the U.S. Senior Open.
In his final year on the PGA Tour, Verplank once again is battling some wrist pain after undergoing additional wrist surgery 18 months ago.
“I'd say I'm OK,” Verplank said. “It hasn't gotten worse, but it hasn't greatly improved. It's better than it was before I had surgery, but it hasn't gotten as good as I hoped it would be.
“That being the case, I'm OK. I'm probably better off than I was a year ago, or the beginning of this year. Part of the problem is I didn't play many tournaments early. After I play a few more tournaments, I'll have a better idea where I'm at.”
Surgeries never completely repaired a lifetime of chronic damage.
“Honestly, it's probably good enough,” Verplank said. “I just haven't had all the cards lined up, yet. I (also) have a little hip problem from last year where I pulled a muscle in my left hip. Obviously that slowed me down quite a bit.”
Verplank has been slowed frequently throughout his career thanks to five surgeries (two right elbow, one left elbow, one left wrist and one right thumb), a shoulder injury and a foot problem.
There was a period when Verplank fell off the grid. In the mid-1980s, he missed 24 consecutive cuts and 37 of 39 over a two-year span.
On the comeback trail
Buoyed by a stubborn resolve, Verplank made a remarkable comeback. Along the way, he was forced to weigh the pros and cons of pulling out the clubs to sharpen his game versus sitting out to allow injuries heal.
“I'm not very good about laying off,” Verplank said. “I always think I can play through it. I'm always stuck in the middle between those two things, but I'm going in the right direction. I plan on being OK by the end of this summer.”
After grinding through some tough years, Verplank's comeback took flight when he won the 2000 Reno-Tahoe Open to snap a 12-year title drought. The following year, he won the 2001 Canadian Open.
As he nears the start of a senior tour career, Verplank brings a resume that includes being on the 2002 and 2006 Ryder Cup teams, invaluable memories after overcoming challenges that date back to being told at age 9 he had diabetes.
“I've had my share of health situations,” Verplank said. “That's just the way it goes. There's nothing I can do about it. The most important thing is trying to stay on top of the diabetes and go from there.”
After years of using different strategies, Verplank in September 1999 started wearing a portable insulin pump on and off the course that helped him better manage the disease.
“I wouldn't say I've ever been frustrated,” Verplank said. “Nobody knows what's going to happen when you try to predict the future. When I won the Western Open, I was playing golf at a very high level. It's difficult to stay there even if you're 100 percent healthy.”
Winning the ‘fifth' major
Verplank said the highlight of his career was winning the 2007 Byron Nelson, a tournament he labeled his “fifth” major.
As a kid, Verplank attended the annual tournament at Preston Trail in Dallas, not far from where he honed his skills at Brookhaven Country Club. His favorite player was Tom Watson because Watson was one of Nelson's favorite players.
“I was like a kid peeking through the wall of a baseball stadium, wanting to be on the Yankees one day,” Verplank was quoted as saying years ago. “That's what it was like for me. I was a kid who wanted to do that.”
Verplank was stunned Nelson called him as a teenager out of the blue. Nelson talked admiringly about Verplank's scores in the newspaper. It started a lifelong friendship.
Over the years, Verplank estimates Nelson sent him 40 or more notes over a 25-year span. That's why winning the 2007 Byron Nelson edges out playing on two Ryder Cup teams as his all-time favorite memory.
During Sunday's final round of the 2007 Byron Nelson, Verplank went on a birdie binge (five in eight holes) to build a three-stroke lead on the back nine, but third-round leader Luke Donald rallied.
Verplank's bunker save on No. 17 preserved a one-shot lead. Verplank and Donald both missed similar 10-foot birdie putts on No. 18. After Verplank tapped in a two-foot par putt, he dropped to a squatting position and looked skyward with a smile on his face.
A few months before his 43rd birthday, seven months after Nelson died at age 94, Verplank lived out his dream.
“It just so happened I won the first year he wasn't there,” Verplank said. “I was disappointed I didn't win (in 2001) in a four-hole playoff and another time when he was around, but Byron meant so much to me. To be from Dallas and win that tournament was unbelievable.”
Turning the page
The Champions Tour has revitalized many careers. Two of Verplank's Oak Tree buddies were reborn on the senior tour.
Gil Morgan has collected $17.2 million on the Champions Tour, highlighted by 25 wins, third most in senior history behind Hale Irwin (45) and Lee Trevino (29). Last year, Wood ended a lengthy title drought with two Champions Tour wins.
If Verplank is relatively healthy, he could enjoy some success.
In addition to his five PGA Tour wins, Verplank lost four times in playoffs and has posted seven top-10 finishes at the four majors.
One reason Verplank persevered was he constantly focuses on the future.
“Honestly, if I had any disappointments it would be I didn't win more tournaments when I had chances,” Verplank said. “Other than that, I've done as well as I can do. Golfers are never satisfied. You always want more, want to play better. It wasn't for a lack of trying.”
Oak Tree teaching pro Jim Woodward, who has enjoyed some success on pro tours, said Verplank will be one of the favorites next summer if he's healthy.
“Scott Verplank knows that golf course like the back of his hand,” Woodward said. “He also drives it straight as a string, which will be huge.”
Verplank is ecstatic his birthday falls perfectly, which will allow him begin the next phase of his career at Oak Tree.
“I could probably drive my golf cart around the course blindfolded and I wouldn't run into any lakes or trees or anything,” Verplank said. “I've played in a bunch of U.S. Opens, the Masters, PGAs and British Opens. I would imagine senior majors aren't that different.
“A lot of guys could win it. I know it will be a great field. There will be a lot of players I've been following a long time and some guys from age group that just turned 50. I'm really looking forward to it. What a great deal to get to play a major on your home golf course.”
Scott Verplank shares his favorite golf memories
Scott Verplank has won five PGA Tour events, played on two Ryder Cup teams, won the 1984 U.S. Amateur at Oak Tree and was a four-time All-American at Oklahoma State. The Oklahoman asked Verplank to name his top two memories:
1. Winning the 2007 Byron Nelson: “Being from Dallas, I was a standard-bearer when I was 11 or 12 back when the tournament was held at Preston Trail. I watched all the great players, including guys like Tom Watson. I considered Byron Nelson to be a good friend who helped me growing up. He was such a great person, a fine gentleman. To win that tournament was a tremendous thrill.”
2. Playing on 2002 and 2006 Ryder Cup teams: “It's really exhilarating to play for your country. I'm proud to be an American. I have national pride. Being on a team isn't usually a part of golf. To play in that type of format for your country is something you'll never forget.”
2014 U.S. Senior Open
When: July 7-13, 2014
Where: Oak Tree National, Edmond
Ticket info: Weeklong package with access to the grounds and grandstands ($100). ... Upgraded package with admission to the exclusive, climate-controlled Trophy Club Pavilion ($200). ... Active military receive 50 percent off. ... Children 17 and under will be admitted free with a ticketed adult.
Website: For more information on purchasing tickets, volunteering or corporate hospitality opportunities for the 2014 U.S. Senior Open go to 2014ussenioropen.com