Having Hit Bottom Verplank Strives for Pinnacle

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PGA ChampionshipTULSA, Okla. -- Scott Verplank was signing autographs after a practice round at the PGA Championship when a young boy pulled out an unusual item for him to sign: an insulin pump.
 
It was the kind of moment that gives the diabetic golfer a lift.
 
Verplank has had his share of downers too, fighting through three elbow surgeries that derailed a career seemingly destined for greatness when he came out of Oklahoma State. That made it so much more sweet for him to claim the early clubhouse lead Friday after 36 holes at the year's final major.
 
He ended up two shots behind Tiger Woods, who matched the major championship record with a 63.
 
'I've been so far down at the bottom of the barrel, I know what that's like,' said Verplank, who shot a bogey-free 66 to move to 4-under 136 for the tournament. 'And you can only beat yourself up so much.'
 
Verplank seemed like a surefire star when he became the first amateur in 29 years to win a PGA Tour event by beating Jim Thorpe in a playoff at the 1985 Western Open. A year later, he entered the final round of the U.S. Open one stroke behind leader Ray Floyd but went out and shot a 74. Two decades later, he still considers that his best chance at winning a major -- until now.
 
'My mind-set is maybe I'm a late bloomer,' said the 43-year-old who lives in Edmond in suburban Oklahoma City. 'I was a very early bloomer. I was probably a top-10 player in the world when I was 21 years old ... I've had a lot of landscape in between. Maybe I'll be a late bloomer here.'
 
Verplank's path to stardom was interrupted by the surgeries, two on his right elbow and then one on his left. It was after the second surgery on his right elbow that Verplank thought he had bottomed out. He drove from his home at the time in Orlando, Fla., to Vero Beach for a checkup, believing that it would be only a few more months before he could play again.
 
Dr. Frank Jobe told him it would be an entire year.
 
'I had a two-hour drive back to Orlando, and I'll remember that. That was a pretty tough time,' Verplank said. 'I remember I was feeling pretty sorry for myself for a couple hours. I needed tissues.'
 
Three years later -- just before the 1996 U.S. Open -- he hit another low when he was told he'd have to have surgery again, this time on his left elbow.
 
'That was very disheartening to me because I'd been through a lot of junk and I'd come through it,' Verplank said. 'That took me about a year mentally to overcome that. That just gutted me when I had to go have surgery again.'
 
With what he's been through, Verplank takes joy in giving others a lift. That's why it was so meaningful for him to sign the autograph for the youngster dealing with the same disease Verplank was diagnosed with at age 9.
 
'If it helps that kid, if it gives him some inspiration or it just makes him feel better for a little while, then it's well worth it,' Verplank said.
 
After his third surgery, the 1986 NCAA champion came back to win the 2000 Reno-Tahoe Open and the 2001 Bell Canadian Open to reach four career victories. After that, he didn't win again until this year's Byron Nelson Championship in his native Dallas. He's finished in the top 10 in five of his eight events since.
 
Earlier in the week, Verplank felt more like an accountant, sorting tickets into 15 envelopes to leave at will call for family and friends. Oklahoma State fans called out 'Go Cowboys!' and 'Go Pokes!' to cheer him on at Southern Hills.
 
'My emotions are fine. I've decided I was going to really try to enjoy this week, have a good time here because there's a lot of extra demands that could really wear you out if you let them,' Verplank said.
 
He started with eight pars before charging into the lead with birdies on the ninth, 11th, 15th and 17th holes. He saved par on No. 13 after his 3-iron from the fairway clipped a tree and found the water.
 
'I'm kind of the guy that I only have to hit a couple decent shots to start thinking I'm pretty good again,' Verplank said.
 
By the end of his round, he was atop the leaderboard at a major -- a place many thought he'd reach years earlier.
 
'I didn't think I was going to come out and win every golf tournament because I have other things that I deal with that most other people don't deal with,' Verplank said. 'I'm happy that I've won five times on the tour. I'm disappointed that I haven't won more.
 
'You know, if you can make heads or tails out of that, good luck.'
 
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