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PGA TOUR veteran Scott Verplank hopes to find his first major title at Southern Hills. (Photo: Getty Images)
PGA TOUR veteran Scott Verplank hopes to find his first major title at Southern Hills. (Photo: Getty Images)

Verplank looking for stars to line up one more time

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You would be hard-pressed to find a player who has his game more in order than Scott Verplank, who has finished ninth or better in five of his last six starts. But a major win at Southern Hills in his home state would surpass everything.

By Dave Shedloski, Senior Correspondent

TULSA, Okla. -- Scott Verplank's 22nd season as a professional golfer is turning out to be one of his best yet, which is a source of both pride and disappointment for a man of immense talent and tepid fortune.

You could hear it in his voice Tuesday at the 89th PGA Championship when he responded to a question about how, at age 43, he's managed to cobble together a sterling year highlighted by his fifth PGA TOUR victory at the EDS Byron Nelson Championship. "I've always been a good player for a long time, but I've had a lot of things get in my way that made the road a little bumpy," he said with a gravitas that doglegs sharply away from his initial remark, one that showed off a wit as sharp as his short game.

Battling diabetes nearly his entire life and having to rebound from a series of injuries related to the disease, Verplank's first instinct was a biting quip, even if his wellbeing hasn't been a laughing matter. "Steroids have played a big part," he smirked, drawing laughs from an assemblage of reporters. "I'm sure hoping they don't pass that deal (drug testing) too quick."

Since regaining his TOUR card in 1997 as the medalist at the National Qualifying Tournament, Verplank has finished outside the top 50 money leaders only once while winning three times. A former All-American at Oklahoma State and the 1984 U.S. Amateur champion, Verplank has been a better player simply because he has felt better.

"My health has been better. And I'm closer to playing like I did as a kid as a collegian before I got hurt and before my health got a little tougher for me to handle," said Verplank, who still weathers periodic fits of elbow, shoulder and foot ailments. "If I'm healthy now, I can play as good or better than I ever have. So I'm enjoying it. I'm trying to, anyway. And I'm looking forward to this week."

He should be.

The Oklahoma resident arrives at venerable Southern Hills Country Club as somewhat of a sentimental favorite and with perhaps his best chance to win a major championship. He has finished ninth or better in five of his last six starts. The par-70 layout is a modest 7,121 yards with only two par-5s, a welcome sight to a relatively short hitter who ranks in the bottom third on TOUR in par-5 scoring performance. Accuracy off the tee and steadiness on the greens are the skill sets that yield the best results at Southern Hills, matching up nicely with Verplank's strengths; he ranks 20th in driving accuracy and 38th in putting.

Since April and that magical victory near his hometown of Dallas, Verplank has been one of the game's most consistent performers, which is why he is among the top 30 in the FedExCup standings -- putting him in range to win the inaugural title with a strong playoff run -- and seventh on the points list for an automatic berth on the U.S. Presidents Cup team.

Verplank contributed 2.5 points to the winning U.S. squad captained by Jack Nicklaus, and he would enjoy being in the company of the Golden Bear, not to mention his compatriots, again.

"It's a goal of mine, just because I want it," said Verplank, a member of two U.S. Ryder Cup teams. "It's a pretty neat deal to get to represent your country, do all that stuff. (To) get a chance to hang around with the other 10 or 11 best players from the United States, you might learn something. Of course, having Jack there for the week is ... for a guy like me, he was in his prime when I was a kid, so he was my idol as far as how to play and watch him. The last one I had a great time being around him. Hopefully I'll make this one."

Verplank was healthy during his one-stroke victory at the EDS Byron Nelson Championship, and other than a sore left elbow, he's feeling similarly fit. The 100-degree heat forecast throughout the week could help or hinder his chances. The aches might be ameliorated but it could sap his strength, too.

"I'll have to be careful," he admits. "I have to be smart, eat properly ... but it's not like I haven't done it before."

Verplank said at the World Golf Championship-Bridgestone Invitational that Southern Hills represents a realistic chance for him to add a major to his resume in an era when most layouts are often stretched beyond 7,300 yards. "They haven't taken it out of my range," he said with a grin. "They've made changes but nothing drastic. I know all the holes. I can see the lines off the tee in my head.

"I feel pretty good about my chances," he added after a practice round Tuesday with Justin Leonard and former PGA champions Davis Love and Phil Mickelson. "If I play good, if I feel good all week, swing it like I've been showing signs of ... if I play my game at an upper level, then I feel like I'll have a chance.

"You know, for me, it all depends on how the stars are aligned. They were aligned pretty good for me in Dallas, and I won. Maybe I'll get them to line up again."

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