Thirty years ago, Scott Verplank hated Oak Tree National.
In those days, Verplank and fellow Oklahoma State golfers would play the course (then known as Oak Tree Golf Club) only for team qualifiers when the temperature was in the 40s and the wind was blowing 20 to 30 miles-per-hour. This came thanks to the sadistic reasoning of former Cowboys coach Mike Holder, now the school’s athletic director.
“Coach Holder had the brilliant idea we would never play Oak Tree until the absolute worst day,” Verplank recalled with a chuckle. “He wanted to see if anybody could break 80, see how tough everybody was. So consequently, every time I played the course, it’d be in January or February, when the weather was awful, when it was so hard that it wasn’t any fun to play. No matter how good you played, you couldn’t play very good. I wasn’t all that fond of the place. Then I got to play it in the summer, and it was like a whole different place.”
Weather conditions went to the other extreme when Verplank, then a junior-to-be at OSU, captured the 1984 U.S. Amateur while battling 106-degree heat at Oak Tree.
Thirty years after winning a major amateur championship, Verplank will have an opportunity to win a Champions Tour major championship on the same course and perhaps in triple-digit temperatures. The U.S. Senior Open is being staged this week in Verplank’s back yard at Oak Tree National. Thursday will mark Verplank’s debut on the senior (50-and-older) circuit. That the tournament starts one day after his 50th birthday might -- or might not -- be coincidence.
In 2006, when USGA officials were evaluating potential U.S. Senior Open sites for 2013 and 2014, they were considering Omaha (Neb.) Country Club and Oak Tree National. One official chimed in, “You know, Scott Verplank turns 50 in 2014. I wonder what date?”
Therein lies the most logical explanation why Omaha was tabbed for 2013 and Oak Tree for 2014. “It just worked out good,” Verplank said. “To my knowledge, it wasn’t done strictly for that (his 50th birthday). I’m pretty lucky that when I get my first crack at it (the Champions Tour), I get to stay at home and sleep in my own bed.”
Verplank also competed in a major at Oak Tree while on the PGA Tour, missing the cut (77-72) in the 1988 PGA Championship won by Jeff Sluman.
Did Verplank ever envision still playing professional golf 30 years after winning the U.S. Amateur?
“When you were in college, were you thinking about what you would be doing at 50?” Verplank said with a laugh. “That was a while back. I don’t know what I remember about the Amateur. Heck, I don’t remember yesterday. How am I supposed to remember what happened 30 years ago?”
Verplank qualified as medalist at the 1984 U.S. Amateur and went on to defeat Southern California’s Sam Randolph 4 and 3 to win golf’s most prestigious amateur championship. Verplank’s triumph prevented Jay Sigel from becoming the first golfer to win three straight U.S. Amateur titles, a feat later achieved by Tiger Woods (1994-96).
Rocco Mediate eliminated Sigel in the opening round. Other notables in that year’s U.S. Amateur field included 1997 PGA Championship winner Davis Love III, 2004 British Open champ Todd Hamilton, 1998 British Open runner-up Brian Watts, Jeff Maggert, Bob Estes and Greg Turner.
Rather than return to his old stomping grounds of Dallas after college, Verplank instead opted to reside in the Oak Tree community in north Edmond and has called the place home for more than a quarter century.
Verplank is one of the most accomplished amateur golfers in history. In addition to winning the U.S. Amateur, competing in the Walker Cup and winning several prestigious titles before turning pro, Verplank won the 1985 Western Open while competing as an amateur on the PGA Tour, beating Jim Thorpe in a playoff.
Considering all the physical ailments Verplank has endured, it’s a minor miracle Verplank’s playing career extended past his 30s let alone has reached his 50s. During one gut-wrenching stretch in 1991-92, Verplank missed 24 consecutive cuts and 37 of 39 over a two-year span after elbow surgery.
As has been well-documented, Verplank was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at age 9 and wears a pager-sized insulin pump on the course. “Coach would tell me some of the (diabetic) episodes Scott had that probably cost him winning some more golf tournaments than he already did,” former OSU All-American and fellow touring pro Charles Howell III has said. “Holder said that, and he’s never told me nothing but the truth. It must be really brutal for Scott.”
Verplank has had to overcome multiple surgeries – two on the right elbow; one to the left elbow; one to the left wrist; one to the right thumb. There also have been shoulder and hip injuries and lately Verplank has been hampered with foot problems. Verplank’s orthopedic surgeon is Dr. Carlan Yates, who is a member of the NBA Oklahoma City Thunder staff. “I don’t know if Dr. Yates spends more time with me or with Russell Westbrook,” Verplank kiddingly said of the Thunder’s three-time All-Star point guard who endured three surgical procedures to his right knee during the 2013-14 season.
Verplank simply has to exit his back yard to experience more pain and suffering on a course that was architect Pete Dye’s original torture chamber. Dye was hired in 1974 to design America’s most difficult course, which he did with a USGA rating of 76.9 for a par-71. Oak Tree Golf Club has since changed ownerships, changed names and also changed its degree of difficulty. Severe undulations on the greens have been tapered. Had changes not been made to the putting surfaces, the course would have bordered on unplayable in tournament conditions.
“Back then, there was peril on every hole,” Verplank recalled of Oak Tree Golf Club in its infancy. “It was one of those deals where par was a good score, and if you could make a bogey when you got in trouble, that was a really good idea. There was a disaster on every hole. It still is that way to a certain extent, but it’s not quite as penalizing as it was back then.”
Interestingly, Verplank assisted in the latest round of course alterations along with fellow Oak Tree member, former OSU All-American and longtime friend Bob Tway in a renovation project headed by local course architect Tripp Davis.
Given all the surgical procedures endured by Verplank and Oak Tree National, who has changed more in the past 30 years?
“Wow, I don’t know,” Verplank said with a smile. “I’d say both have changed quite a bit.”