No Pain, No Gain
Dubbed 'comeback player of the century' by one colleague, five-time PGA Tour winner Scott Verplank has countered diabetes and elbow injuries with a rare blend of grit, toughness
"If you've done it once before, then you can do it again."
In the thousands of miles I traveled in the months I spent writing this book, in the dozens of people I talked with, one question continued to pop up: Have you talked to Scott Verplank?
Everybody slumps; it doesn't matter who you are, but very few have gone through what Verplank has. You'd need a motion-sickness pill to comfortably consider the arc of his career. The highs were extraordinary. The lows were unimaginable.
"It was horrific," says Bob Tway, one of Verplank's closest friends, who has known him since college. "A lot of times when you're going through a stretch like that, people don't want to sit with you in the lunchroom. They think it's contagious."
As a college player Scott Verplank was a star. He made All-America all four years at Oklahoma State, the last three on the first team. He won the 1984 U.S. Amateur, the oldest championship in American golf and arguably the most significant title in the amateur game. But scores of players throughout history have those types of credentials. In the past half century only one other player accomplished what Verplank did in the summer of 1985: He won a PGA Tour event, the Western Open, even though he was still an amateur.
Verplank had extraordinary talent, but he also had something else that proved a great and unlikely factor in his success. Something that—when he'd first discovered it 12 years before—he could have never imagined would have been anything but a burden.
Scott Verplank grew up a "normal" child of Dallas in the 1960s and 1970s, which is to say he rooted hard for the locals. "My dad had season tickets to the Cowboys," he says. "He played baseball at Texas, so we rooted for the Rangers, too, when they moved from Washington."
Verplank took to soccer, but when the team he played on started a vigorous national travel schedule in the summers, he chose to focus on the sport he'd spent time playing with his grandmother, Elizabeth Bybee, on visits to her home in Houston. "She played golf almost every day," he says, "so she'd take me with her."
Bybee didn't hit it very far, but she had an excellent short game and impressed its importance on her grandson. Every green he one-putted when they played together at River Oaks, she gave him a quarter. By age 12, he broke par back home in Dallas. He remembers the day: "We had a soccer game in the morning, and then I went and played golf in the afternoon." Just as Verplank recalls scoring "three or four" goals and shooting 70 in the afternoon that spring day in 1976, he also remembers the January morning 2½ years earlier when life got different in a hurry. He had been stuck at home for a few days with what the doctor had told his mother was the flu.
"I could barely get off the couch," he says.
When he didn't get any better after a few more days, his mother took him back to the doctor's office. "He looks at me and goes, 'Get to the hospital, now,' " recalls Verplank.
Verplank's mother loaded him in the car and rushed him to the same place where President John Kennedy was taken on Nov. 22, 1963: the emergency room at Parkland Hospital.
"I remember getting in the back seat of my mom's car, and I thought I was having a heart attack. My heart was beating like 200 beats a minute. I thought my heart was going to explode out of my chest. And that's the last thing I remember."
Verplank lapsed into a coma, which lasted more than a week. When he woke up, the doctors told him he had diabetes. Much of an elementary-school student's carefree existence was instantly stripped away. The nurses brought an orange to his bedside and stuck it with a hypodermic needle to demonstrate what Verplank would now need to do every day. And then he was told he'd had his last ice-cream cone.
"I remember saying, 'What? I can't have ice cream anymore? I'm a 9-year-old!' " says Verplank. "And they said, 'No, it'd probably be best if you didn't.' Obviously, my whole life changed."
Verplank became an introvert, the better to keep people away and discourage them from asking "messy" questions.
"I really didn't let anybody in or let anybody know much about me," he says. "I didn't want them to think I was some sort of freak because I had to take shots and do all that."
His reticence and aloof demeanor made the perfect suit of armor to keep him protected and immersed in his own little world. As challenging as it was, the diabetes served him well as a golfer. "It made me tougher mentally than almost everybody else that I was playing against," he says, "because I had to be."
After winning the Western Open, Verplank went back to Oklahoma State for his senior year. In the spring he graduated with a 3.5 grade average in business administration and started his life as a pro golfer. It was different. Most everybody was just as good and focused as he was. He didn't enjoy the same rabid success he had in the amateur game, but he set about establishing himself as a sturdy, dependable presence. In summer 1988 his first win as a pro came at the Buick Open in Michigan. He'd started dating the sister-in-law of fellow player Dillard Pruitt. He finished 31st on the money list. Life was good.