Originally created 04/27/01

Simpson making comeback at Forest Oaks



GREENSBORO, N.C. -- A lot has changed since Scott Simpson won 14 years ago at Forest Oaks Country Club.

His jet black hair has turned gray, he's shaved his trademark mustache, he's put on a few pounds and the Greater Greensboro Chrysler Classic now has a $3.5 million purse.

The 45-year-old Simpson is also attempting an unlikely comeback on the PGA Tour with seven screws and a plate in his right ankle following a December 1999 skiing accident in Utah.

Simpson shot a 6-under-par 66 Thursday in one of his best rounds since picking his clubs back up and grabbed a one-stroke lead over seven golfers after the first round.

Aaron Baddeley, a 20-year-old rising star from Australia, Jerry Kelly, Dudley Hart, Robert Damron, Shaun Micheel, Spike McRoy and sectional qualifier Jeffrey Lankford were in the group at 67.

"There is a picture of me in the locker room and everybody says, `Who is that guy?"' Simpson said in reference to his different appearance since winning here in 1987 when first place was worth $108,000. This year's winner gets $630,000.

Simpson has missed five of nine cuts after sitting out all of 2000 with his injury. He's playing this season on a major medical exemption, but so far he's 171st in greens in regulation, 163rd in driving distance and 157th in scoring average.

But Simpson can still putt, and that's what saved him again in his bogey-free round on the 7,062-yard layout.

Simpson made the turn at 2-under on a sunny afternoon in the mid-60s, then birdied holes 10-12 and added another one four holes later. Two of his birdie putts were from 15 feet and three were from 12 feet.

"The fun is trying to play under pressure and getting into contention," said Simpson, who last won in 1998. "It's fun to see if you can do it again."

Simpson, who walks with a limp, recalled his win here years ago, laughing about the cold weather and being in the interview chair again.

"It was so cold Payne Stewart wasn't even wearing knickers," Simpson said of the late golfer. "We all wore rain pants and we had to stop because of snow in the last round.

"And I remember playing real steady and having the lead and then limping in," Simpson said. "I would like to limp in again."

The temperature was 36 degrees this time when Kelly, a former college hockey, got to the first tee Thursday morning. But Kelly birdied his first three holes to grab the early lead before Simpson's afternoon charge.

Kelly has never won in five-plus years on tour. But he led The Players Championship last month heading into the final round and was paired with Tiger Woods before shooting a final-round 73 to finish fourth.

That tourney gave Kelly confidence - maybe too much confidence. He took a few weeks off to finish his taxes and buy a new house.

Kelly got out of rhythm and missed two straight cuts heading into Greensboro.

"I came back out the next tournaments (after the Players) and said, `OK, you are playing great, let's just go with it,"' Kelly said. "I kind of went with a routine that wasn't a work-hard routine."

Hart has never won here, but has had great success, tying for third last year and finishing fourth in 1999 when he started with an opening-round 66.

"I don't want to jinx myself or anything, but I do play pretty well here," said Hart, who had three tap-in birdies to highlight his round.

The rough isn't nearly as long as the normal 6 inches at Forest Oaks Country Club this year, but some golfers said the course might actually play harder.

"The fairway is still a premium," said Joey Sindelar, one of a group of nine at 68. "You can get away with it occasionally in the rough, but when it is this height you will see guys attempt to do things instead of just chopping it out.

"They will be flailing it all around the greens and then they'll be standing on their head."

Only 17 of the tour's top 50 money leaders are in the field this week and just four of the top 30 in the world rankings.

That group includes Hal Sutton, the defending champion who won last week at the Shell Houston Open. He shot a 2-under 70 and is four shots behind Simpson.