RALEIGH Raleigh resident Paul Simson probably wouldn’t have won the 1998 U.S. Open golf championship at San Francisco’s Olympic Club, but the 61-year-old New Jersey native will play the “what if?” refrain a few times this weekend.
The Open is back at the imposing San Francisco venue for the first time since1998, when Simson became the talk of the sport for one afternoon.
Then 44 and a long-shot survivor of the qualifying process, Simson made the opening-round turn at 2-under, one stroke off the lead. But his tee shot on No. 10 hit a tree and landed on a bare spot in the rough. Later it was learned that a spectator picked up the ball and left.
A USGA official ruled Simson’s shot a lost ball and invoked the penalty, leading to a triple bogey en route to an opening round 76.
“You know, I still had a great time at that tournament,” Simson said Wednesday.
“It was a wonderful week. My son (Phillip) was my caddie and at age 17 then, he got the thrill of a lifetime. He got to meet Ben Crenshaw, Paul Azinger and Fuzzy Zoeller, and a lot of the other top players. Plus, fans thought Phillip was the player and I was the caddie. We still get a kick out of that.”
In the second round, Simson shot a 72 for a 36-hole 148, one stroke off the cut. Lee Janzen eventually won the event with a 280 even-par score. The incorrect ruling prevented Simson from playing the final 36 holes.
“I got an apology from Buzz Taylor (USGA president at the time) a couple of months later. That took some of the sting out of it, but I’ll always wonder a little I guess.
“A lady who was the women’s club champion at Olympic saw everything that happened. She told me later that I got a great break on the lie. She said I would have a straight wide-open shot of about 160 yards to the green. But who knows, I might still have made a seven. I made another seven at No. 17 because I made a bad shot decision. But I was able to shoot 76 with two triples.”
Simson won’t be at Olympic this weekend. Instead, he’ll try to win the North Carolina Amateur title at Durham’s Treyburn C.C., and he’s a threat to do it even in his 60s. He’s won more than 200 amateur tournaments.
“That was my only Open in ’98,” Simson said. “I haven’t tried to qualify more than a time or two since that one. But I got enough memories from that one day or two to last for a while.
“The funny thing is that tree on No. 10 isn’t even there any more. It’s been removed.”