The item in yesterday's paper was so small you might well have missed it. A minor headline, "Verplank Rallies," followed by one paragraph on page D5 saying that Scott Verplank shot a sizzling 63 and came from four shots down to win the LaJet amateur golf tournament in Texas for the fourth straight year.
Having difficulty placing the name?
Let me give you some help. If you had to sit down right now and write about sports in 1985, these two moments would indelibly stand as the most improbable, most refreshing: 17-year-old Boris Becker winning Wimbledon, and amateur Scott Verplank winning the Western Open.
No one would argue that Becker's triumph wasn't more dramatic. Wimbledon is the most important tournament in tennis. No unseeded player ever won it before, let alone a callow youth barely into his second year as a professional. Becker went into the tournament as just another freckle-faced, strawberry-blond, power galoot, and came out a prodigy. But it's a key fact, isn't it, that Becker already was a professional, that he had played against this cast of characters week after week for a while now?
Verplank's triumph didn't carry the metaphoric transcendance of Becker's. A Western Open is by no means a U.S. Open, even if the players -- Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Ben Crenshaw, Seve Ballesteros, Hubert Green, Andy North, Craig Stadler and Peter Jacobsen -- essentially are the same ones you see there. Verplank needed to do it at a major to match Becker's hoopla. But Verplank, at 21, is every bit as much a kid in his sport as Becker is in his.
And he is an amateur.
A great one, yes, the defending U.S. Amateur champion and winner of five of six tournaments so far this summer. But still an amateur.
What makes Verplank's moment as rare and pure as Becker's isn't that his talent is greater, but that his opportunities were fewer. Because amateurs must be invited to play in PGA Tour events, and invitations are infrequent, Verplank had played in only six tournaments with pros before the Western. He'd done well in the 1985 U.S. Open, finishing as low amateur, tying for 34th place overall. But in four other tournaments he had failed to make the cut, so he had precious little practical experience in the same field with pros.
Becker was ranked 20th in the world entering Wimbledon.
"I watched it on TV and rooted for him; I thought it'd be great if a kid 17 years old won Wimbledon," Verplank said of his soulmate's ascension to stardom. "You've got to pull for the underdog, right?"
Verplank's odds were far longer entering the Western.
Beyond underdog. Underpuppy.
"I just wanted to play well, and see how I stacked up against all the guys on tour," Verplank said yesterday from the family house in Dallas. "If I played really, really, really well, I thought I might finish in the top 10."
An amateur hadn't won a PGA event since 1954. Not only are pros much better now, but there are many more of them to beat. So how could a college kid, going into his senior year at Oklahoma State, dare think about winning?
Yet he'd led wire to wire. For three rounds. On the last hole, Jim Thorpe forced him into a playoff by rolling in a last-tag putt of 18 feet.
"That last hole and in the playoff I realized that the only thing that does me any good is to win," Verplank said. "If I finish second, I'm low amateur and I get a pat on the back for having a great tournament. That's it. But if I win, I can write my own ticket. Winning opens all the doors. It gets me the two-year exemption for PGA events, and means I don't have to go to qualifying school for at least two years. I've heard stories about how hard the qualifying school is. People who can really play haven't passed, like Curtis Strange."
With all that riding on a sudden-death situation, Verplank's nerves surely must have felt like Jell-O in a high wind.
"I didn't think of it as pressure; I thought of it as extra incentive," he said, just as flat as mirror glass.
On the second hole of the playoff Verplank jammed in a six-footer for par. The tournament, the exemption and the glory were his. "I didn't say much because I didn't want to alienate anyone," Verplank said. "A few of the pros probably didn't want me to win. Having an amateur win was good for golf, but it wasn't too good for them, if you know what I mean."
However, because amateurs are ineligible for prize money, the $90,000 first-place check went to Thorpe.
"None," Verplank said. "See the thing is, when I do turn pro I won't be out there on tour playing for the money. I'll be there because I love the game, and I want to win tournaments. The money will come."
In the immediate future he will play on the U.S. Walker Cup team next week, then defend his U.S. Amateur title in New Jersey in two weeks. He said he would not turn pro until after his senior year. He's an academic all-America at OSU, carrying a 3.4 GPA in business administration, and he's intent on graduating on time. "If I quit, I'd never go back. People who tell you they will, that's just a story, man. Who goes back? I put in too much time and effort to quit now. And anyway, I'm having too much fun at school."
When he does go on the tour much will be expected of him, as it is now of Becker. Like Becker, Verplank seems nearly ready to see if there is greatness within him. Greatness is not something he would shy from, even if it is not something he would vocally claim. "Nicklaus doesn't tell people how great he is, everyone does it for him. I'm sure he knows it, but he doesn't have to say it," said Scott Verplank, as if he were picking his role as well as his model.