Scott Simpson – What I've Learned

Words by
Dan Davies
Scott Simpson – What I've Learned

In a glittering playing career, Scott Simpson won back-to-back NCAA Individual Championships, six PGA Tour events and the 1987 US Open. Now the Head Coach of the men's golf team at the University of Hawaii, he brings his vast experience and grateful outlook to helping young players to get better. These are some of the lessons he's learned along the way.

Hawaii is pretty laid back and that jives really well with me. My wife grew up in Hawaii. I met her in high school and we've come back here every year since we've been married. We just love Hawaii. It's the spirit of Aloha where people go out of their way to be kind and nice and care for others. Aloha means love and welcome and the breath of life. Obviously the weather's also great and you get to wear shorts and a shirt every day. So here I am, retired and working full time as a college golf coach. ’m keeping busy, which is nice.

Applying for the job as Head Coach of the men’s team was the first job I'd ever applied for in my life. I had to write a resume. Hahaha. It was funny. I gave it to the girls coach and she goes, ‘Scott, let's work on this. You need a different template. You need to make it look better.’ They were worried whether or not I could do all the paperwork. I don't have an assistant, so I've got a plan for the travel and I’ve got to plan for the recruiting. I said, ‘Well, I did travel the country on my own for 40 years, so I kind of know a little bit of what I'm doing.’

Scott (left) with his University of Hawaii team

My college coach, Stan Wood, was one of those that started the All-American teams. He was really well respected in college coaching. He was one of the giants. It was a lot different back then. I'm not sure they were even allowed to walk with the players. Now you see coaches, I think too much in the guy's faces sometimes. Let the guys play. Back then, we just went and played and it was kind of like, ‘See you after the round’. But Stan Wood was really supportive. He just made things fun. It was just fun to play for him. We had a great team. We'd all hang out together all the time.

Back then recruiting was totally different. I wrote to USC to say I'd love to go there and play golf. I remember right before school started, I went up, met Coach, met Craig [Stadler] and we went to a football game. Coach said, ‘By the way, Scott, there's no room in the dorms, so you're gonna be rooming with Craig.’ Craig had just won the US Amateur. He was a junior and he looked at Coach and goes, ‘No way. I'm not rooming with a freshman.’ I was really shy back then. I hardly ever talked. Coach said, ‘Yeah, you are, Craig.’ So I roomed with Craig. He had a friend that was a real estate agent in LA and he found this house to rent. It was pretty darn old. It got condemned after we left, I think. We didn't have any dining room furniture. We put a golf net up in our dining room so we could hit balls inside the house. We didn't have simulators back then. After a few beers, we didn't have a whole lot of windows left in the dining room either!

I was known as being very calm but I broke so many clubs. Craig never broke a club. He learned how to throw them and he learned how to toss them but he never broke a club. He was like, ‘Jeez Scott, everyone thinks you're all calm. You break clubs. What do they think I'm so mad for? 

I never thought I was going to be that good. I always figured if I'm going to compete with these top guys, I got to work my butt off. I was the guy always practising and working hard, hitting balls and going out and playing as late as I could at night. 

“I remember looking down the list of names on the trophy and thinking, ‘Wow! Well, maybe I could be a tour pro one day.’”

Curtis Strange was unbelievably good. The first time I won the NCAA [in 1976], I was playing the best golf I'd ever played in my life. I played Curtis and beat him like 5&4. It was like, how in the world could I beat Curtis Strange? I never took it for granted that I was all that great. I guess I obviously knew I could win but it was a big thrill. I remember  looking down the list of names on the trophy, with Hale Irwin and Jack Nicklaus and all these guys, and thinking, ‘Wow! Well, maybe I could be a tour pro one day,’ That was my dream. But I never know if I'd really make it out there. So yeah, that was a big confidence boost.

The players coming out now are much better prepared to go to the PGA Tour. The teaching has gotten better, there's more national junior Tournaments and the kids just get used to competing with the very best earlier. When you're the best in college now, you really have confidence that you can go out there and play and beat the pros. And you see guys do it. I think the guys are just much better prepared. I like the fact that we have the [PGA Tour] U now and there are better opportunities. You see guys coming out now and get seven sponsor exemptions on the tour. I won the NCAA twice. I got no sponsor exemptions. When I turned pro, I just had to go start from zero. Nowadays, I think these guys have a running head start. The college programs are better than they ever were. With the opportunities and the things that the coaches are doing to help these guys prepare, they're much better prepared than we were. When we played in college, you got as good as you could get and then a lot of times you just had to kind of start over on the PGA Tour and work your way up. It was tough.

“These guys have a running head start. The college programs are better than they ever were. They're much better prepared than we were.”

I remember crying under a tree with my wife and going, ‘I'm never gonna make it.’ After I got out of school and graduated, I tried the tour school for the second time. I was right on the edge and I think I shot 80 the last day. I was crushed. You either do one or two things: either you quit or you pick yourself up and go, ‘Okay, what do I need to do?’ I guess I just went back to work. I was gonna give it the best I could. I ended up making it the third time. Rookies coming out had nothing. They had to qualify on Mondays to get in the tournaments. All that making it through the Q school did is allow you to Monday qualify. It was tough. 

I was 28 when I became a Christian and that changed me a lot. As a Christian you're grateful for not having to worry about that six-foot hole you’re gonna face one day. You have assurance of where you're going and you’re just grateful for being able to be alive and being with others. It changed my mindset a lot. 

The week before I won the 87 US Open, I was a little bit upset. I was getting a little angry at myself. I was probably putting pressure on myself because we were going to Olympic Club in California where I grew up. My buddy, Larry Moody, who led the Bible study on tour, said, ‘Hey Scott, how you doing?’ I said, ‘Terrible. I'm just all frustrated.’ Maybe I was tired. The US Open was my fifth week in a row. Larry said, ‘Lucky for you, our Bible study is on contentment.’ And it was lucky for me. I remember coming away thinking, ‘You know what? I get to play in the US Open. Why am I putting on this pressure myself? Just be thankful I get to play in the US Open. I get to enjoy this. I get to give it my best. How many people would love to be here?’ It just freed me up. It freed up my mind. When you're thankful, I think it frees you up to just enjoy what you have.

“When you're thankful, I think it frees you up to just enjoy what you have.”

After I won, the press said, ‘Geez, you seemed so relaxed out there. You haven't won a major. You’ve got Tom Watson breathing down your neck with eight majors and he's a great player.’ I said, ‘Well, you know, I was just thankful to be here.’ When I shared with them my story a lot of them thought, ‘Oh gosh, here goes this Jesus freak guy.’ 

The US Open was always it for Tom. I'm glad he won one, but I'm glad he didn't win mine! That 40 footer he had on the last hole looked perfect. It was in the hole about six feet out. It missed by a half an inch probably. I really did not want to play Tom Watson in a play off the next day. Hahaha!

The US Open definitely suited my game. I remember my wife was looking through a Golf World one time and she said, ‘Hey, look, you won at all the hardest courses on the tour.’ I think the harder, the better for me. I hit the ball pretty straight, kept it in play. I was always a really good iron player and I had a good short game. I didn't have any super strength in my game, but I didn't have any big weaknesses. I did everything pretty good. Occasionally I did have a temper, but as a general rule, I waspretty calm on the course. I can handle adversity pretty well. If I make a bogey or double bogey, I'm okay. I like that about hard courses. A lot of guys would get so frustrated, so angry. I always loved it. I always thought the harder, the better. I like that idea of the harder it is, the more you identify the best player. Nicklaus always said he felt like on the harder the courses in the majors, half the guys were already defeated because they thought it was  too hard. They set up really well for me.

Seve just had all the shots. He was just so much fun to watch. I remember playing with him at Shinnecock. He hit this shot on the 11th hole. He hit it over the green and you're dead if it goes over the green there. He just gets in there, makes some practice swings and then he hits this high little lofted shot, which comes down and goes three feet from the hole. There was no way anyone else could hit that. I thought, ‘Wow, that was so cool.’ 

“Bobby Jones hit it farther than everybody. He had an advantage. Distance always helps, no matter how far the ball goes.” 

I don't think anyone could beat Tiger at his peak. I would say when Tiger won those three majors in a row, if you got everyone playing their best game, I think Jack would probably take him the longest. But if you just got them right at the peak of their games, Tiger was just so good at everything. His chipping and putting and then the way he hit it. He and Jack both hit it farther than everybody. 

Length has always been an advantage. Bobby Jones hit it farther than everybody. He had an advantage. You have to hit it straight and you got to do everything else good, but distance always helps, no matter how far the ball goes. 

Byron Nelson would be my golfing hero. I loved Byron Nelson. I was  6-2. He was 6-2. He was tall, he had a little upright swing like I did. I loved his golf swing. I never could get the same impact position he did unfortunately, but I tried. Hahaha. I loved the way he played. He was a Christian. He came to our Bible study and I said, ‘Did people make fun of you, Byron?’ Back then, a lot of guys, they’d get done playing and they’d head to the bar and drink. He said, ‘Well, they didn't make much fun of me after I started beating them all the time.’ He was just grateful for what he had, grateful for what he did. He said he was mostly grateful for all the people he got to meet through golf and the friends that he made and the opportunities that he had. I sure hope I'm like that when I get older.

It was great to be able to play golf and make a living. It was fun. Being on the tour was fun.

“If you have a strength, keep it a strength. Don't neglect it just because you're working on something else.”

I was always a big believer that you have to keep working on everything. If you have a strength, keep it a strength. Don't neglect it just because you're working on something else. And if you have a weakness, then let's try to figure out how to make this better or even turn it into a strength. That's why I'm such a believer in Clippd. If you choose to put in a little bit of time and effort and keep your stats, Clippd gives you all the info.

I really want the guys to use Clippd on their own. I tell them that if they want to get good, this is for you. You have to keep the stats, and it's so easy to do. Clippd is gonna show you what you're doing well, what you're doing poorly, and ways to improve. You know, what you can work on to really improve your game and improve your scoring.

Every year, Calvin Peete was the straightest driver on tour. Everyone said, ‘Well, he hits it good, but man, if he can only putt good.’ He putted really good. It's just that he always had 20 and 30 footers because he hit so many greens. He'd make par, birdie, par, birdie, and at the end of the day, he's shooting under par every day. He won the second highest number of tournaments in the ‘80s behind Tom Watson. The stats were deceiving back then. They're so much better now.

My mom and dad were teachers and I've always thought it would be fun to teach. I mean, I've given lessons at pro ams for 40 years!  When I tried teaching I found out I loved it. It was so much fun, especially with kids. 

I tell parents that I will never yell at a kid just because I know how hard the game is. Sometimes, we can do everything right and sometimes we just hit bad shots. I never get mad at anybody because I know that they're trying. I guess I would be disappointed if guys gave up. The thing I work hardest with probably is making sure their attitude stays good. There's nothing wrong with being nervous, nothing wrong with being totally focused, and nothing wrong with wanting to win. But you just have to be enjoying it out there if you're gonna do your best. When I started teaching kids, I told the parents, ‘Don't let them lose their love for the game. Don't let them lose their love for the competition.’ That’s why we get into golf because we love to play it.

Nobody can master the game. The game is, to a degree, frustrating and it always will be because the goal is to be as perfect as possible and you cannot get there. I just want them to enjoy it and to work hard and see how good they can be. I love players who want to be a pro one day. One out of one out of 100 are going to make it, but why not try? Why not have a good time and give it your best? 

I want our guys to have fun. When they look back on four years of college, it should be like I do: ‘Wow, that was so much fun.’