Craig Stadler probably won't win the Kemper Open this year, but his lifelong friend and former college roommate, Scott Simpson, might.
Stadler and Simpson grew up within a few miles of each other in San Diego, played in the same junior and high school golf tournaments and were teammates for two years and roommates for three at the University of Southern California. Now, on the PGA Tour, they and their wives and young children often dine together.
So, perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise that some of Stadler's mystical knack for subduing Congressional Country Club has rubbed off on Simpson, who shot his second consecutive 68 yesterday for a two-stroke lead over Tom Kite (70-138) at the midpoint of the Kemper Open.
Simpson's position atop the leaderboard is doubly strong because only one player besides Kite is within six shots of his 136 total, and that man, George Burns at 141, is suffering the torments of the golfing damned after following his record 64 of Thursday with a homely 77 yesterday.
"I can't enjoy my play from yesterday for five minutes," said the bitterly disappointed Burns, who began his day with a bogey, then went downhill as his new swing evaporated.
The only other players under par were Jack Renner, Tze-Chung Chen and Fred Couples at 142 and Joe Inman and Buddy Gardner at 143. In fact, Simpson's bogeyless 68 and Inman's 69 were the day's only rounds under 70 as afternoon showers drove the field stroke average to a bludgeoning 75.4. The cut score of 150 was the second highest of the year on the tour.
The consistent but never spectacular Simpson, who has won almost $400,000 in the past three seasons but has only one victory (the 1980 Western Open), did his damage quickly in the perfect sunny morning conditions; the son of two school teachers started on the back nine and went birdie-birdie-par-birdie-par- birdie before cranking out 12 straight flawlessly dull two-putt pars.
"I just played really well," said Simpson, almost apologetic for his ideal 16-greens-in-regulation round on a day when others, like Chi Chi Rodriguez, Lee Elder and Hubert Green, were inspecting the Maryland vegetation and missing the cut. "This is not one of my favorite courses . . . not yet, anyway."
"I'd like to see Scott win, if I can't," said Stadler, who, despite an eagle and two birdies, shot 75 to fall 11 shots behind.
"I've still got some sparks of brilliance in me. But I need a 66 or 67 on Saturday to have any chance," said Stadler, his prospects fading of being the ninth golfer in 50 years to win a tournament three straight years. "But you can't do that driving it into the rough 10 times, like I did today. I know how to play this course from the fairway, but not from where I've been."
Ever since their USC days, Simpson and Stadler have been a perfect Odd Couple, contrasts in almost every way.
While the heavyweight Stadler gets constant agitation about his temper, his candor and his Joe the Bartender appearance, Simpson, 27, is your basic tall dark and handsome, clean-cut, temperless, diplomatic perfect mother's son. Simpson's neat black mustache seems his only concession to Walrus style.
"Craig's really a pretty calm person . . . well, off the course, anyway. Away from golf, we're a lot alike," says Simpson. "His reputation is worse than he deserves and mine is probably better than I deserve. I've had my moments (of anger) on the course. Once in a while, you just lose it all."
Even in their style of play, Stadler and the man who's bidding to take his Kemper crown are complete opposites.
Stadler hits it long, but sometimes erratically, with an idiosyncratic swing, then makes his strokes back up around the greens with a fabulous short game and putting touch. The 6-foot-2, 180-pound Simpson drives the ball fairly short (133th on the PGA Tour in distance), but straight (30th in accuracy) with a simple one-piece swing which seems so natural that many a pro might kill for such a dependable stroke.
In fact, on Tuesday evening, Bobby Clampett (145) and Simpson gave a clinic here and Simpson watched, bemused and admiring, as Clampett gave esoteric pointers. Simpson then summed up his ideas on golf theory in about one minute: "Good grip. Good address position. Take it back with the upper body, then start back with the lower body and extend toward the target through impact. That's about it for me. That's about as technical as I get."
While Stadler's short game saves him, Simpson's tends to betray him. Simpson's scoring average often ranks considerably higher than his position on the money list, which is evidence that he backs away from big checks in the late rounds. Last year, he was 12th in the Vardon list, but only 24th in money, while this year he's 24th and 47th on the two lists, an unusually large gap.
"It gets a little different on Saturday and Sunday when the cameras start goin', but I'm looking forward to it," said the modest, almost shy Simpson, whose scoring average is 70.8 before the cut and 72.0 afterward.
This week, Simpson may not have to make the weekend birdies that have often eluded him when he's been a serious last-day contender at prestige events like the 1982 TPC and 1983 Masters. "Ten under par will probably win," says Simpson, who teed off the same minute, but on opposite nines from Burns and gained six strokes on him in only four holes. "I was glad he (Burns) was backing up, but I didn't really watch it (on the scoreboards)."
The exploits of Simpson, Kite, Burns and Stadler and many other players as well illustrate an unconventional theory of Kite's: that Congressional is not a long hitter's course, but, rather, a track suited to accurate drivers with splendid short games.
"I think a lot of people are missing the boat on this long-hitter thing," says Kite, who after a scrambling 14-one-putt show in the first round got his swing together and hit 15 greens with a typically precise Kite performance.
"Long hitters aren't used to hitting the clubs that they have to hit here. Us shorter hitters are . . . Length is always an advantage, if you're straight. But, here, I'd rather be short and straight, hitting long irons from the fairways, then be long and erratic and be hitting clubs I wasn't used to hitting."
Besides, Kite isn't that short off the tee. "I'm not a cripple," he says. Actually, after some work this week with Columbia pro Bill Strausbaugh, Kite is longer than usual and, after a three-month draught, as straight as usual, too. "It's a lot more enjoyable playin' the way I did today. I'm not shaking as much as I was when I walked off yesterday. This round is my most pleasing in a long, long time."
Kite should be further encouraged that his "Congressional: Home of the Mighty Mites" theory, may hold some water.
Of the eight players under par, two are Top 10 distance drivers (Gardner and Couples), two are in the middle of the pack for length (Burns and Chen) and four are not in the top 110 out of 150 pros on the tour for distance (Simpson, Kite, Renner and Inman). Somebody should have told the dozens of muscle men who signed up to play Kemper, including 32 of the longest 35, that their supposed advantage was largely an illusion. Indesputably, even the shortest hitters--Inman is 148th--can make the leaderboard at Congressional.
That is, if you can find a leaderboard.
"They really need to do something about their leaderboard situation here. It definitely needs some work," said Kite. "It's a long time between boards. And there aren't many names listed on them . . . it's very hard to find out how other players are doing, or how (hard) the course is playing."
Kite said it like someone who expected to have an intense personal interest in leaderboards in the next two days. SCHEDULE/ADMISSION
Today: 9 a.m.--Third round. $15, $22.
Sunday: 9 a.m.--Final round. $15, $22.
CBS will televise live today (3:30-4:30 p.m.) and Sunday (2:30 to conclusion or 7 p.m., whichever comes first). Children's tickets (grounds only) are available for $5 daily, if child is accompanied by a paying adult.