JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – Scott Verplank has aches and pains older than some of the guys he’s chasing at the PGA Championship.
I don’t feel a day older than a hundred,” the 47-year-old Tour journeyman said to laughter Saturday, moments after a 69 left him at 5 under and two shots off the lead heading into the final round. “It’s fantastic.”
Fantasy might be more like it. Verplank wears an insulin pump to deal with diabetes and he’s battled chronic elbow, wrist and foot injuries for nearly all of his pro career, so long, in fact, that he was named the Comeback Player of the Year – in 1998.
Verplank gained a spot because he’s still in the top 100 world rankings, not a small accomplishment in itself. A win here would make him the second-oldest major champion ever, behind 48-year-old Julius Boros, who won the 1968 PGA Championship at Pecan Valley Country Club. To accomplish that feat, he’ll have to handle oppressive heat and a demanding Atlanta Athletic Club layout better than guys he’s spotting a few years – Brendan Steele (28) and Jason Dufner (34), both at 7 under; and Keegan Bradley(25), who’s at 6 under.
Verplank isn’t kidding about those salad days. He put an exclamation point on a wildly successful junior career by beating Jim Thorpe in a playoff at the 1985 Western Open, becoming the first amateur in 29 years to win a PGA Tour event. It was less of a surprise than it sounds. Verplank was an All-American all four years at Oklahoma State and won both the U.S. Amateur and NCAA Championship before he left.
But by 1992, Verplank was already cobbling together a medical chart that would rival his PGA Tour resume in length. He needed surgery to repair an elbow injury that year, then again in 1996. He played parts of several of his early seasons with medical exemptions and arrived at here at the start of the week with five career wins and a wrist that’s been sore for nearly a year.
Yet Verplank climbed into contention by wringing two birdies out of the final four holes, a closing stretch worthy of just about any major anywhere. Asked to describe that run of holes, Verplank just laughed.
Verplank then launched into a description that sounded nearly as tortured as he felt trying to navigate that stretch.
And 17, you know, 17 is, too. But you know, 17 is almost like, it’s almost like the breather hole; not that it’s a breather, because, you know, it plays 200 some yards. It’s a big time shot.”
Almost out of words, he said finally, “It’s a tough finish, there’s no question about it.”
Reminded that he and 44-year-old Steve Sticker might be the two most recognizable names on a leaderboard light on major champions, Verplank smiled one more time.