Friday, August 10, 2007

One More Reason To Smile for Verplank

Sports of The Times
August 11, 2007

Tulsa, Okla.

Until Tiger Woods shot his record-tying 63 yesterday, Scott Verplank, with a 66 as the Oklahoma homeboy in this 89th P.G.A. Championship, heard the loudest cheers. He lives 100 miles down the road in Edmond, played college golf at Oklahoma State and has been the diabetic marvel of the PGA Tour for two decades. But he doesn’t seek sympathy.

“I just monitor what I’m doing,” he said. “I check my blood sugar. I have this insulin pump that is helpful. I do it five or six times a round. I’m in my own little world and kind of have to be.”

He has made the most of that little world. As an amateur, he won the 1985 Western Open, one of the few amateurs ever to win a PGA Tour event. He couldn’t collect the prize money, but he did collect rave notices that his Type 1 diabetes sometimes prevented him from justifying. But he always kept smiling.

“I didn’t think I was going to come out and win every golf tournament, because I have other things that I deal with that most other people don’t deal with,” he said, a quiet allusion to his medical condition. “I’m happy that I’ve won five times on the Tour. I’m disappointed that I haven’t won more.”

Now 43 years old, Verplank, a diabetic since he was 9, won the Byron Nelson Championship in Dallas in May, and he has earned more than $20 million on tour. He is also one of the most positive pros.

“It’s a little bit of a show to you guys,” he said, alluding to his listeners in the media center yesterday. “If you heard me talking under my breath when I’m out on the golf course, you probably wouldn’t think I’m that upbeat. No, I wouldn’t say it’s a show, but I’ve been so far down at the bottom of the barrel, I know what that’s like, and you can only beat yourself up so much, and now I’m just trying to give myself a better chance.”

For all his success, Verplank has never won a major. And in today’s third round, he and Woods, two strokes ahead as the 36-hole leader, will tee off in the final pairing.

Don’t assume Verplank will fold under Tiger’s glare. As a Ryder Cup player in 2002 and 2006, Verplank had a 4-1 record, including 2-0 in singles. Those individual triumphs were against two of the European teams’ best, Lee Westwood and Padraig Harrington, the recent winner of the British Open. And at Southern Hills yesterday, Verplank had a bogey-free round after having had only two bogeys during his par 70 in the opening round.

“I hit the ball yesterday and today as good as I’ve ever hit it,” he said. “I just hit lots of fairways, lots of greens, very solid shots, and I was putting for birdie most holes.”

Earlier this week, Verplank played a practice round with Phil Mickelson, who said that Southern Hills “set up perfectly” for Verplank’s distance, especially on the dogleg holes.

“The greens roll nicely; he’s a great putter,” Mickelson said. “When he gets hot, he makes it on all these types of greens. He reads them so well and rolls it so good. He spent a lot of time in Oklahoma and Texas with this Bermuda rough. He’s able to get up and down on the greens. I think he’ll be the guy to beat this week.”

Verplank is already the guy much of the gallery is rooting for.

“It’s always nice to have people pulling for you,” he said. “There’s extra people out here that obviously recognize that I’ve been an Oklahoma State person. I’ve heard a lot of ‘Go Cowboys’ and ‘Go ‘Pokes.’ ”

As a homeboy, Verplank has had what he happily described as “a lot of extra demands,” meaning requests for tickets for family and friends.

“I don’t know what night it was, Monday or Tuesday night,” he said with a smile, “I was like an accountant trying to get all of these tickets done in the right envelopes. I think I put like 15 envelopes at will call and I’m like, that’s enough.”

After his round yesterday, Verplank practiced his putting, then headed to the house he rented this week for his family.

“I have my wife and four kids and a nanny and my dad and a couple of nephews,” he said. “I’ll probably go swim with my little 3-year-old. Either be in the water or inside out of the heat, and I’ll watch some TV. There’s never a dull moment when you’ve got four kids.”

And there won’t be a dull moment today when Scott Verplank tries to overtake Tiger Woods.


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