The pain of his 1991 loss was somewhat tempered by the fact that Scott Simpson had won the U.S. Open four years earlier. (Greule/Getty Images)
Simpson keeps his Hazeltine heartbreak in perspective
Scott Simpson led the 1991 U.S. Open by two shots with only three holes to play, but went on to lose to Payne Stewart in an 18-hole playoff. Losing hurt, but Simpson enjoyed his epic battle with his great friend.
By Vartan Kupelian, PGATOUR.COM Correspondent
Scott Simpson never imagined lightning could strike again but it did. That's the kind of week it was at Hazeltine National Golf Club at the 1991 U.S. Open.
Simpson was in pursuit of his second U.S. Open victory in four years. In the final round, Simpson and Payne Stewart, two good friends, were the last men standing. On the back nine, the championship was trending in Simpson’s favor.
"I remember having a two-shot lead with three to go," said Simpson, the 1987 U.S. Open winner at Olympic Club in San Francisco.
But Stewart fought back to force for a 72-hole tie at 6-under 282. So on Monday, there was an 18-hole playoff. Different day. Same result.
"I had a two-shot lead again in the playoff with three to go and Payne got me both times," recalled Simpson, now a regular on the Champions Tour.
As Simpson, Stewart and the others in the field had prepared for the U.S. Open, much of the clubhouse conversation centered on comments Dave Hill had made following the 1970 national championship, the first held at Hazeltine.
The first round of that U.S. Open was notable for very high scores. The weather was cold, windy and rainy and the course was controversial. After the second round, Hill ripped the course in his typically frank manner. All that's missing at Hazeltine, the outspoken Hill said, is "80 acres of corn and a few cows."
Two days later, Hazeltine, which was designed by Robert Trent Jones, would exact its revenge against Hill, who finished second behind Tony Jacklin. The Englishman shot 7-under 281 on the 7,151-yard course.
That was the backdrop for 1991. Turns out, the players need not have worried.
"There was some apprehension because of what Dave Hill had said," Simpson acknowledged. "He slammed the course pretty good. We got there in '91 and the course was great, really, really good. A lot of guys felt it was unfair the first time but there were some changes, and the routing was changed.
"To Hazeltine's credit, I thought they did a great job. Everyone thought it was a fair, tough test of golf that the U.S. Open should be. There was nothing tricked up about it. It had a really good variety of doglegs, both ways, and good balance (between) the long and short holes."
The championship began on an ominous note. With storms threatening Hazeltine during the opening round, six spectators took cover under a tree near the 16th hole. The tree was hit by a lightning and a spectator was killed.
Simpson remembers that pre-tournament rain had changed the complexion of Hazeltine. "It was soft, (and) we had a chance to make some birdies," he said.
Thursday's summer squall made it even softer. But as the week went on, the course began to get firm.
"The playoff got pretty tough," Simpson said. "The course dried out and the wind was blowing."
In Sunday's round, Simpson drove into the rough at the par-4 16th and 18th holes and watched his once-comfortable lead disappear.
"I had to hack it out and made two bogeys," he said. "Payne parred in to finish in a tie and set up the Monday playoff."
Once again, Simpson took control and arrived on the tee at the 16th hole of the playoff with a two-shot lead. This time, he drove perfectly into the fairway as did Stewart. Both hit the green but Simpson three-putted and Stewart made birdie for a two-shot swing. So it was all square with two left.
But Simpson dropped another shot at the 17th hole. "Four-iron left into the water," he recalled. "He hit a good shot up there. I had to drop on the other side, hit a great chip actually, to 10 feet away, and made it for bogey."
Now the tables were turned. Simpson was one stroke behind with one hole to play. Both golfers missed the fairway at the 18th and both failed to hit the green in regulation.
Simpson faced a downhill 15-foot chip and he knew he only had one option.
"Hole it," he said.
The chip was aggressive and rolled past, and it mattered little that he would miss the putt coming back and make bogey. Stewart now needed two putts from the fringe for par 4 and the victory. The deal was sealed.
Simpson recalls that the two friends "had a great time … I enjoyed the playoff. It was fun playing with Payne. We were friends but definitely competitors, too. Payne was always the life of the party and he was always just fun to be around."
As he reflects on that momentous Monday, Simpson feels Stewart won the U.S. Open. He doesn't think he gave it to him.
"Second in the U.S. Open is still great playing," said Simpson, who had beaten Tom Watson by a shot at the 1987 U.S. Open. "I gave it my best on every shot. It didn't work out this time. You always hate to lose when you're leading."