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Scott Verplank is enjoying support from both the local fans and his fellow competitors. (David Cannon/Getty Images)
Scott Verplank is enjoying support from both the local fans and his fellow competitors. (David Cannon/Getty Images)

Verplank playing at the level he always knew he could

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Few players on the PGA TOUR have persevered through as many physical problems as Scott Verplank. But the former Oklahoma State star is on top of his game after an emotional win at the EDS Byron Nelson Championship and thrilled to be in the hunt so close to home.

By Melanie Hauser, Contributor

TULSA, Okla. -- It may have been the longest drive of his life.

Dodgertown to Orlando in 1993. Two hours. Of hell. Of tears. Of questioning just about everything.

Scott Verplank had expected to hear he would be back playing golf in two or three months. Instead, Dr. Frank Jobe said it would be a year. Another year.

"I needed tissues," Verplank said. "I was feeling pretty sorry for myself."

Three years later, another surgery. This one on his left elbow.

"I was so ticked off, I couldn't see straight," he said. "It gutted me."

As he talked, you thought back to the kid you met when he was 17 or 18.

The kid who had been diagnosed at 9 and refused to let his Type I diabetes dictate his career. The kid who won the U.S. Amateur in 1994 and 1996 NCAA title. The Oklahoma State grad who slipped something even bigger in between -- the 1985 Western Open title as a 21 year-old amateur.

To know Scott Verplank is to understand the real definition of perseverance.

Diabetes. Three elbow surgeries -- two on the right, one on the left. A cranky shoulder. A career that has been filled with incredible highs and scrape-the-bottom lows.

A career that just may finally be hitting its stride this week at Southern Hills.

This 89th PGA Championship is a home game for Verplank, who lives two hours away in Edmond. It's also a stage for his not-so-long, but rocky steady game -- a game that was shaped on the Bermuda grass keep-it-low, bump-and-run-it course in Texas and Oklahoma.

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Verplank threw out the prettiest little 66 you've ever seen Friday afternoon to jump to the top of the leader board. And it left us feeling like we did in April when he was two shots off the lead going into the weekend and won the EDS Byron Nelson Championship. He fell to his knees, looked up as if to thank the late Nelson, his friend, and cried.

Three months later, Verplank is right there again. The last time he felt like he really contended in a major -- forget a handful of tied-for-sevenths (2007 U.S. Open, 2004 Open Championship, 2001 PGA Championship) and a tie for eighth (2003 Masters) -- was in his first one as a professional, the 1986 U.S. Open, where he tied for 15th.

"I was either tied or one shot behind Raymond Floyd going into the final round," he said.

Since then, he's missed cuts. He's played OK. He's been steady.

But this year has been different. He admitted he's played perhaps his best golf since he was 21. He's 43 now with a wife and four children. And here? He's a star. A Texas native who anchored some of the great OSU teams and never left the state.

He's so Cowboy orange-and-black, he had his tickets to Canton last week to see Thurman Thomas inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But he wound up playing well enough at the World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational that he had to pass on the ceremony.

This week, it's all about that major. That elusive one.

"I've been a good player for a long time but I've had a lot of things get in the way that made the road a little bumpy," he said. "So honestly, if I'm healthy now, I can play as good or better than I ever have. So I'm enjoying it."

It shows. The diabetes has been a struggle and, yes, it contributed to a lot of his physical problems. But he's always treated it as part of his life, not an excuse, which is the reason he always seems to upbeat. So positive. So incredibly funny with his wry-on-dry sense of humor.

He wears a pump to control his insulin and, earlier this week, a young fan walked up and asked him to sign his pump. Verplank smiled. He's happy to inspire them; to show them what can be done, even in extreme heat where everyone knows it's even harder for him.

"You know, like I said, I'm in my own little world," he said, "and kind of have to be."

Yes, he's persevered. He's scraped bottom, cried and fought back. He and his wife Kim are raising four kids. They just moved into a new house. And life? It's really good.

"I've been so far down at the bottom of the barrel, I know what that's like, and you can only beat yourself up so much," he said. "So I kind of learned that ...
that's why I'm hoping that I'll be a late bloomer, because I've been through all of the other stuff where I beat myself up and now I'm just trying to give myself a better chance."

Verplank is hitting it so well he only missed one fairway -- and he jokingly disputes that. His ball, he said, was half on the fairway, half on that first cut.

The man who used to talk only to a few spent 30 minutes holding court Friday afternoon. On OSU, surgeries, golf and tickets. And how thrilled he is to have played so well the first two days.

"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 -- like you guys. Just kidding," he said, drawing a laugh.

"You know, with friends and family and tickets, just the other night ...
I don't know what night it was, Monday or Tuesday night; I was like an accountant trying to get all of these tickets done in the right envelope. I think I put like 15 envelopes at Will Call and I'm like, okay, that's enough, I'm done with that."

And now? He's got a chance.

The course sets up for him with all these doglegs, and he grew up scrambling out of this rough. The steel shafts he went back to in April are still finding fairways. His putting? When he gets hot, they can't stop falling.

The locker room knows that, too. And he's the players' choice this week -- if, of course, they can't win.

"Now certainly I'm going to try to gun for him," Phil Mickelson said. "But if I'm not able to catch him, he's one of the most well-thought-of individuals on TOUR. And I know a lot of people are pulling for him.

"I think a lot of players felt the emotion for him when he won the Nelson, because that was such a special victory for him, too."

Verplank just smiles. He's seen the bottom and he's within reach of a career-changing win. And he's having the time of his life.

Especially with the press.

A reporter asked if he had heard the stat -- the winner at every major here at Southern Hills has led or shared the 36-hole lead.

Verplank did a double take. "Boy, I don't know. I hope it's a really rock solid ...
," he laughed, and so did everyone else.

"You know, if I'm one back, I hope it's not very good. But if I'm leading, then I hope it holds true."

No matter what, he's playing at the level he always knew he could. And that's something special.

It's also perseverance.

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