Only those who are able to deal with the toughest breaks win the US Open.
The year’s third major has long held the unofficial title of the toughest test in the game.
Scott Simpson can testify to that. In winning in 1987 at Olympic Club, he was one of just two players under par for the week, along with runner-up Tom Watson.
In doing so, however, Simpson added his name to a very select group of golfers to have conquered the game’s biggest challenge.
Now 66, he took time out to speak to bunkered.co.uk about what it feels like to become a US Open champion – and look ahead to this year’s battle at the Country Club.
Scott, thanks for taking the time to speak to us. Can you tell us what it felt like to win the US Open back in ‘87?
For me, it was a dream come true. I think nowadays most Americans would say the Masters is the tournament they want to win the most because of the tradition and everything which goes with it. But when I was growing up the US Open was the one everyone wanted to win, because it’s our national championship and it was always on the hardest golf courses. You had to be the best player that week to win it because the courses were always so hard. There’s great history too, with the likes of Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus. The US Open was always my dream but to actually win it was pretty amazing.
Talk us through how you felt on the Saturday night knowing you had a chance...
I’m naturally pretty low-key and calm but there were definitely nerves. However, I was playing well and had won earlier that year. I just went out there to play my best. I tried as hard as I could not to get too caught up in whether I won or lost; I just went out to do my absolute best on every shot.
What was it like to walk off on the Sunday as a major champion?
It was unbelievable. Growing up playing with my friends, I would give myself five-footers and say ‘this is to win the US Open’. Then to actually do it was kind of surreal. I walked off and it didn’t sink in for a while. Now when I watch how good everyone is, I think ‘how did I manage to win that?’
You were defending champion at the Country Club in 1988. What do you remember about it?
It was a great course. There’s a lot of variety to it. I don’t study all the time but I’m aware of the history of the game, especially Francis Ouimet winning there [in 1913] which popularised golf in America. It's an interesting course because there’s boulders and trees sticking up; it feels very much like an old-style course. It was put there without moving a lot, not like now where the bulldozers move everything. It was built around what they had. It's hard, as it has to be for the US Open, but it’s a fun golf course.
What’s the winner going to have to do better than everyone else?
The main thing is keeping it in play. You’re rewarded for hitting fairways. Bryson DeChambeau threw that out the window at Winged Foot but there wasn’t a lot of trouble off the tee there. That won’t be the case at the Country Club. You’re going to have to be accurate with your irons and you have to have a good short game to save pars. You have to be pretty good at everything.
Is there anyone you can see doing particularly well?
Length isn’t going to be a huge determining factor. Accuracy is more important so I wouldn’t be surprised to see some of the younger guys up there. Sam Burns is playing really well right now, and I’m sure we’ll have all the usual guys. Scottie Scheffler will probably be in the mix as well, and Jordan Spieth is hitting the ball really well.
The US Open has a reputation as the toughest test in golf; has that always been the case?
It’s definitely been like that for many years. I think the USGA lost their way a bit for a few years but it’s got back to the way it was. When I won there were only two players under par. The US Open has always had the reputation of being the hardest tournament; Hale Irwin won with seven-over at Winged Foot. It’s good to have one tournament which is really, really hard because it tests you mentally. You’ve got to be able to handle the bad breaks.
How does the USGA strike a balance between making it enough of a challenge without it becoming unfair?
Some of the players are going to complain no matter what. They don’t like playing hard. The fairways can be wide and the greens can hold every shot and they like those because it’s easier. But the US Open isn’t that way. Jack Nicklaus used to say you would eliminate half the field because they were upset about the course before they even got the chance to play.
How much pressure is there on new USGA boss Mike Whan, given Mike Davis had a reputation for making courses tough?
I think he’ll follow in the same vein and make sure it’s a US Open, rather than a corporate event. I know they’ve added some length and I think they’ll set it up difficult.
It’s also the first US Open with a full complement of fans since Covid. What will that mean to the players?
It’s going to be fantastic to have the fans back. It’s a lot more fun as a player when you hear the cheers. You do get nervous and excited, and you can get that to work for you. That’s what makes it fun, and that’s what the players work so hard for. Having the fans out there amps it up a lot.