Verplank’s remarkable journey to Oklahoma Golf Hall of Fame

Lake of the Ozarks
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Editor’s note: This story is from the April-May issue of Golf Oklahoma, reprinted here for our digital readers. Verplank, who will be competing in the 2021 Senior PGA Championship next week at Southern Hills, will be inducted into the Oklahoma Golf Hall of Fame in November at Oklahoma City Golf & Country Club. For ticket information or to sponsor a table, go to www.oklahomagolfhof.org.

By John Rohde

Nothing has ever simply been handed to Scott Verplank, including his 2021 induction into the Oklahoma Golf Hall of Fame.

His entire career has been a never-ending quest of courage.

One of the most accomplished amateurs in the sport’s history, Verplank steadily climbed Mount Everest, reaching the summit when he won the 1984

U.S. Amateur at his soon-to-be home course of Oak Tree Golf Club (now Oak Tree National) in Edmond. But roughly a decade after turning pro, Verplank found himself stranded in Death Valley trying to survive a slew of surgeries that would have sent mere mortals into early retirement.

It would have been understandable for Verplank to wallow in what his pro career potentially could have been had it not been for all the medical maladies. In time, he instead has come to accept his achievements despite all the setbacks.

“Looking back, I appreciate being able to do the stuff that I have up to this point. I really do,” Verplank said. “I’ve gotten to play in some of the best tournaments in the world. And I appreciate how good I was when I was 21 years old. I appreciate that now more than ever. I was on a track at an early age to do a lot more than I’ve done (as a pro). But at the same time, my window was a lot shorter just because of health reasons. I’m not complaining. I never have and I won’t. I’m pretty lucky to get to where I’m at, I think. I’ll just go with that.”

The 56-year-old Verplank paused and jokingly surmised, “I don’t think I’d be in the Oklahoma Golf Hall of Fame the way I’m playing right now.”

If you’re looking for candid and sometimes painful answers to questions, Verplank is your guy. Along the way, this occasionally has ruffled the feathers of fellow club members and some tour players, but people have always known where Verplank stands on any issue. “I’ll tell you the truth,” he said.

And here’s the truth: Verplank assembled an astonishing amateur resume.

He was the 1982 AJGA Player of the Year and won the Texas State Amateur three times (1982, 1984 and 1985).

A three-time, first-team All-American at Oklahoma State, Verplank won nine collegiate tournaments, including being the 1984 Big Eight and 1986 NCAA Championship medalist.

In addition to the 1984 U.S. Amateur, Verplank also won the Porter Cup twice and in 1985 swept the Western Amateur, Porter Cup and Sunnehanna Amateur en route to being named to the Walker Cup team.

Upon Verplank’s induction into the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame in 2016, former Cowboys coach and retiring athletic director Mike Holder said he regarded Verplank to be the best collegiate player ever, with the possible exception of Arizona State’s Phil Mickelson.

“I went into a lot of amateur tournaments knowing that if I didn’t beat myself, then nobody else would, either,” Verplank said. “That’s a great feeling. I was lucky enough to have that for a little while. Heck, Tiger Woods has gone about 30 years with that feeling. That’s pretty good.”

Verplank won five PGA Tour events and earned more than $29.5 million in official career earnings. In addition to winning the 1985 Western Open in a playoff against Jim Thorpe, Verplank also captured the 1988 Buick Open (two strokes ahead of runner-up and fellow Hall of Famer and Oak Tree touring pro Doug Tewell), the 2000 Reno-Tahoe Open, the 2001 Bell Canadian Open and the 2007 EDS Byron Nelson Championship. Verplank also captured the 1998 World Cup individual title.

He now plays on the Champions Tour and has also embarked on a broadcasting career with CBS and the Masters.com website.

As a new inductee, Verplank will join fellow Oklahoma Golf  Hall of Famer Bill Glasson (Class of 2019), who like Verplank battled multiple physical ailments throughout his career. Glasson has endured 20-something surgical procedures, although the exact number is uncertain.

Informed of Glasson’s shocking total, Verplank said with a chuckle, “I’m not as big an addict as him. Unfortunately, I believe I’ve had nine different surgeries. I’d prefer to have had none.”

Verplank’s official surgical scorecard: three on the left wrist, two on the right elbow, one on each shoulder, one on the left elbow and one on the right thumb. There also were chronic bouts with plantar fasciitis.

Asked how much of his life has been spent wearing some sort of cast, Verplank said, “I was always in a sling for shoulders, elbows and wrists. Not many casts, which is good.”

The medical challenge of a lifetime came with the diagnosis of Type 1 diabetes (T1D) when Verplank was age 9 and lapsed into a coma, which is why he carries a pager-sized insulin pump to help control his blood sugar when he’s on the golf course.

Verplank said he never has withdrawn from a tournament because of diabetes. “I’ve always just fought through that,” Verplank said, “but I’ve withdrawn at times because of injuries.”

Verplank is a mix of determination and relentless fortitude, two reasons why he was honored with the 2002 Ben Hogan Award from the Golf Writers Association of America (GWAA) given to golfers who achieve success despite physical handicaps.

Verplank doesn’t specifically know what led to his wide range of ailments.

“All the injuries I’ve had, yes, being diabetic did not help,” Verplank said. “The specific cause of all the injuries, I can’t tell you (why). I don’t think anybody could tell you. But my whole life is diabetes-related. I don’t heal up as fast. I just don’t. If you’re a Type-1 diabetic, it’s an autoimmune disease and my circulation is not as good. I’ve been very lucky that I’ve gotten to play golf my whole life, to be honest with you. That saved my health, the fact that I get to go outside most days and get exercise.

“That’s why I give college scholarships to Type 1 diabetic kids. I want them to play a sport and be outside and be active and then you can kind of control the disease versus the disease controlling you.”

Scott and wife, Kim, have four children – Scottie, Hannah, Emma and Heidi Ann. The goal of the Scott and Kim Verplank Foundation is to provide young people with Type 1 diabetes the financial ability to pursue a college education.

The foundation’s website states: “The physical and emotional trials of being a child with T1D are well documented; however one of the less publicized effects of T1D is the strain on the families. Parents are faced with concerns over the health of their child compounded by the question of how to pay for the daily care and supplies, much less the idea of paying for their college tuition. The Foundation is funded through personal resources of the Verplank Family and other donations. In addition, the Verplanks host an annual celebrity golf tournament, the Verplank Foundation Invitational, to raise additional dollars to fund scholarships.”

Despite his impressive amateur achievements, Verplank still was not offered exempt status to the PGA Tour and had to endure 1987 Qualifying School, where he finished T6 to earn exempt status. Ten years later after suffering a string of injuries, Verplank again was required to go through Qualifying School to obtain exempt status and finished as the 1997 School medalist.

Verplank was a member of two Ryder Cup teams (2002 and 2006), both of which unfortunately were won by the Europeans.

The 2002 Ryder Cup was played at The Belfry in England, where Verplank was paired with Hal Sutton in the afternoon foursome (alternate shot) match against Darren Clarke and Thomas Bjorn on opening day.

“Standing on the first hole at a Ryder Cup the first time, everybody had told me, ‘You’re going to be nervous, you won’t be able to tee the ball up and you won’t even be able to see the ball and hit it,’ ” Verplank recalled. “I got on the first tee and I was hitting first in alternate shot. I looked around and thought, ‘Why would you be all worked up? This is the greatest thing I’ll ever do in golf.’ And I had a ball. I played awesome in every match I had at the Ryder Cup because I was so pumped to be there and so happy that nothing was going to ruin it. I was not nervous at all. Why would I be nervous? It was the most fun I ever had playing golf.”

Verplank recalled hitting his opening tee shot down the middle of the fairway. “I was thinking, ‘OK, here we go.’ Hal was like, ‘Don’t be nervous.’ I was like, ‘Screw you. Knock it up there close. I’m gonna make it.’ ”

Sutton hit the approach about 20 feet from the cup and Verplank made the putt for birdie. “I said, ‘Come on, let’s go. Quit talking about me. You better not play crappy.’ And we won (2 and 1).”

Verplank finished with a 2-1 record as a Ryder rookie, which was capped with a 2-and-1 singles victory over Lee Westwood.

The 2006 Ryder Cup was played at The K Club in Ireland, where Europe dominated with an 18.5-9.5 victory. Two of those points came compliments of Verplank, who posted a 2 and 1 victory alongside Zach Johnson in a morning fourball match on the second day. Verplank closed with a 4 and 3 singles victory over Padraig Harrington, which included an ace on the 14th hole for the only American hole-in-one in Ryder Cup history.

The Americans also lost the 2012 Ryder Cup, during which Verplank served as vice captain under captain and long-time friend Davis Love III. The Europeans claimed 8½ of a possible 12 points in singles matches on the final day to post a stunning 14.5-13.5 comeback victory at Medinah Country Club near Chicago. Although Love’s decision-making was widely second-guessed afterward, Verplank steadfastly endorsed Love opting to stick to his original game plan that had given the Americans a seemingly insurmountable four-point lead heading into singles matches.

“I don’t know how Davis could’ve done anything better than the way he did it,” Verplank said. “From the players’ perspective, everything was taken care of, everyone was happy with how things were going. We were up 10-6. That’s the majority of the strategy is how you get through the first two days and that’s as good as anyone’s ever done. Ninety-nine out of 100 times we’re going to win with a 10-6 lead. It just didn’t happen. My first thought afterward was that Davis should do it again. I would’ve asked him on the spot to do it again.”

Verplank also participated in the 2005 and 2007 Presidents Cup, playing both times under captain Jack Nicklaus.

Asked if the pressure to represent America was equal in both events, Verplank immediately said, “No, no, no. The Presidents Cup is more like a friendly inner-club. When Jack Nicklaus is your captain, you want to win. I love representing the United States. There are some great stories from all that, but Jack was basically, ‘You guys just tell me who you want to play with.’ It was a lot of fun. Love both events, particularly the Ryder Cup.”

A huge fan of many sports, Verplank shared this analogy: “The Ryder Cup is the Super Bowl and the Presidents Cup is the Pro Bowl.”

Verplank’s overall record at the Ryder Cup was a combined 4-1-0, a winning percentage of .800. At the Presidents Cup, Verplank went 6-2-1 for a winning percentage on .722, which ranks sixth all-time among American players.

Of all his notable achievements, Verplank admitted his pinch-me moment came at age 42 when he won the Byron Nelson Championship at Las Colinas in Irving, a suburb of his birthplace of Dallas. Unfortunately, it came seven months after the death of a man Verplank described as “one of the greatest humans ever.”

“Things (various body parts) were hurting,” Verplank recalled. “I had a good run for a while, but was not playing great the first half of that year. To win in Dallas where I grew up and Byron Nelson had helped me as a teenager and befriended me, that was one where I was really like, ‘Wow. This is cool.’ Listen, it was unbelievable. I was so lucky that he was so nice to me.”

Verplank’s friendship with Nelson began thanks to his mother being a longtime volunteer at the tournament.

“Byron Nelson knew every person who volunteered for that tournament, spoke to every person and knew everybody,” Verplank explained. “He called my mom when I was 16 years old and said, ‘I’ve seen your son’s name in the newspaper. He’s playing pretty good. Ask him if he’d like me to help him.’ I mean, that’s what was offered. I was like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. What?’ Winning that golf tournament …. Sadly, he wasn’t there, but it felt like it was just meant to be.

“The other stuff, to be honest with you, I kind of expected to do. Not that I ‘expected’ to win the Western Open, but if I played like I had been playing that I would be able to compete. I played better the week before that in an amateur tournament. It was as much a shock to me as winning in Dallas was.

“I was very driven, particularly as an older teenager in college because I was basically more mature. I always said I was ‘smarter’ because that sounds better to me. I was more mature because I had to be. I was 9 years old when they bring me home and tell me I’m going to have to take an insulin shot every day. That’ll make you grow up really fast, so I was just more mature than most of the other kids at the end of junior golf and then in college. I was better than them, but I also was more mature. In a weird sort of way, it (diabetes) helped me as a kid because it made me grow up real fast and it helped my golf. To this day, I still pay attention to things that other people don’t pay attention to.”

Asked what he thought of his pending Oklahoma Golf Hall of Fame induction, Verplank’s normally convictive voice instantaneously became hushed.

“I really appreciate it,” Verplank said. “I feel very fortunate to be included in it because of the golf history in the Oklahoma Golf Hall of Fame. That’s how I really feel about it.”

As he said, Verplank will tell you the truth.


 

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