As soon as the plane landed last week, Bobby Clampett drove over to Troon Golf Club. He'd been flying all night. He should have been sleeping. Instead, he wanted to tee it up. Scotland. Where they invented golf. Where Old Tom Morris won four British Opens a century ago. First thing off the plane, Bobby Clampett hurried to Troon, going past the links of Prestwick Golf Club, where they played the first dozen Opens.
"I thought, 'What was it like in 1860 here?' " Clampett said today with a child's enthusiasm. "How would the people have gotten to the golf course? Taken a horse and buggy?"
The first Open had only eight players, which is seven more than the 111th Open. Bobby Clampett is 11 under par after 36 holes. He has made 13 birdies. He is five shots ahead of anyone else, and the championship is all but conceded to him if the weather remains as kindly as it was on this sunny day when the strongest breeze barely moved Clampett's curly locks.
For all we know about Bobby Clampett, and the basic information is bountiful, we still know nothing. He is a mystery out in the Open. He has a monk's devotion to the high tech study of the physics of the golf swing; yet he was hauled off a U.S. Open course as a blaspheming comic for hitting balls while on his knees. Victory isn't as important as "the mental challenge to yourself," he says; yet he confesses that "the feeling is there" that he can win major championships for years to come.
Some of these contradictions are the baggage of youth not yet sure what to do or how to do it. Clampett's little side trip to Troon, straight off the plane, reveals more--both his consuming passion with the game he met at age 10 and the restless curiosity that moves him to keep a daily journal. That passion and curiosity are the only things we can identify with certainty about Clampett, except that the kid can flat play lights out.
At 18, he won the California State Amateur, led the U.S. Open for a moment and was an all-America at Brigham Young University (where in the Mormons' backyard he would become a student of Christian Science).
On tour now barely two full seasons, he has finished second four times while winning more than $300,000. Last month, as Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus wrestled for immortality in the U.S. Open, Clampett finished third--and had a shot to win as late as the 12th hole on Sunday.
Arnold Palmer is 52 and Jack Nicklaus is 42.
Tom Watson is 32 and Bobby Clampett is 22.
Somewhere, there's a hell of a 12-year-old who'll be in a sentence with Bobby Clampett someday.
Johnny Miller says Clampett has the best swing in golf. It is marked by control so steady the swing seems to have been riveted into place. The takeaway is slow and smooth, with extension that gives the little guy (5 feet 10, 140 pounds) unusual power. At the top of his follow-through, Clampett allows not even the slightest wiggle of the club. It is as if we have seen a machine strike a golf ball.
The machine analogy comes easily, for Clampett ascribes much of his success to the teachings of a Carmel Valley (Calif.) Ranch golf pro, Ben Doyle, a disciple of "The Golfing Machine," an instruction book by Homer Kelley.
"I'm a mechanic more than an artist," Clampett said. "I always try to develop rather than let it happen naturally. Ben Doyle, since I was 13, has done all the film work on my swing. I have worked hard to build a golf swing with Ben. He has perhaps an idealistic view of the swing. When I was a junior, he took swing photographs of the best players--Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Johnny Miller, Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Byron Nelson.
"In the concept of 'The Golfing Machine,' we tried to analyze each component of their golf swings and find out why they're the best players in the world . . . I'm writing a book now in my spare time. It's a continuation of 'The Golfing Machine.' My book explains the model I'm looking for."
The more the assembled journalists listened to such wanderings, the more they put together a picture of Bobby Clampett as the robot pro. He may be a machine. Take away the curly blond hair ("his hair is a cross between a young Albert Schweitzer and Harpo Marx," said a BBC commentator) and pull off the Barry Manilow mask--and, voila, you can see the computer tentacles that caused this machine, Bobby Clampett, to strike a golf ball perfectly.
Meet Bobby Clampett, the pro from IBM's machine shop.
Or is he, if not wired, perhaps the kind of thing Dr. Frankenstein might have put together if he'd been into golf instead of genetics? That is, did Clampett take various parts of people's swings, sew them together and send a kite into a sky of lightning?
"I'd say no," Clampett said. "More than anything else, what I've learned is the understanding of the laws behind each of those players. What do these players do that makes the ball go the way it does?"
As the British Open begins its last half Saturday, Clampett insists he is not thinking of victory. All that concerns him is "the mental challenge" of continuing to play as he has so far. The only reason he hasn't won a tournament--his considerable ego always causes him to add, "I did win one last year in Japan"--is that "I haven't shot the low score."
Instead of victory here, Clampett says he is chasing a different goal. "I want to see how low I can shoot."
So, on a scale of 1 to 10, how close is Clampett to perfection?
"To perfection? Or to the best I can play? Probably a zero on my way to perfection, maybe a 5 to the best I can play."