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For 1971 Merion contender Jim Simons, life proved to be toughest course

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Jim Simons, sportswriters observed during those four days that forever defined him, looked like Huck Finn. Strawberry-blond, freckle-faced, with mischievous eyes and a boyish smile, the 21-year-old amateur from Butler, Pa., performed like a fictional hero that weekend in 1971.

Jim Simons (left) and Jack Nicklaus gets together after they took the lead in the U.S. Open at the end of three rounds of play Saturday at Ardmore, Pa., June 19, 1971. (AP Photo)
Jim Simons (left) and Jack Nicklaus gets together after they took the lead in the U.S. Open at the end of three rounds of play Saturday at Ardmore, Pa., June 19, 1971. (AP Photo)Read more

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Jim Simons, sportswriters observed during those four days that forever defined him, looked like Huck Finn.

Strawberry-blond, freckle-faced, with mischievous eyes and a boyish smile, the 21-year-old amateur from Butler, Pa., performed like a fictional hero that weekend in 1971.

Still in college, Simons nearly won the 71st U.S. Open at Merion. He led after three rounds. He led with nine holes to play. And as he stood on the 18th tee Sunday, a birdie would have landed him in a playoff with Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino.

He flubbed a 3-wood from the rough, double-bogeyed the hole, and tied for fifth, the second-best finish by an amateur since World War II. Afterward, the smile framed by that bowl-cut blond hair was as bright as his future appeared to be.

Thirty-four long and confusing years later, when his lifeless body was pulled from a hot tub at the Jacksonville rancher where he lived alone, Simons' physical appearance had changed little.

The local medical examiner noted in his 2005 autopsy report that the body police discovered at 4440 Timber Bluff Court was "that of a white male with a weight of 190 pounds and a height of 72 inches. . . . The scalp hair is blonde. . . . The teeth are natural."

Time had been kind, even if life had not.

When the U.S. Open returns to Merion Golf Club next month, the names of those who won championships there - Jones, Hogan, Trevino - will receive prominent attention.

Few Merion-related stories, however, are as tragically compelling as that of Simons, who nearly became the first amateur since 1933 to win golf's national championship. And in a sport in which drug use is rarely discussed, the lessons of his death might one day be worth remembering.

Marred by pain

Simons turned pro soon after Merion and earned minor distinction with three victories. In 1988, he quit unexpectedly to become a stockbroker.

"Jim was a grinder," said Jim Masserio, the retired pro at Aronimink Golf Club in Newtown Square. Masserio played in that '71 Open and met Simons when both were Western Pennsylvania amateurs.

"He always gave 120 percent," Masserio said. "When I heard he'd quit golf, I assumed he'd throw himself into his business the way he did with golf. I figured he'd be a success."

Instead, the last decades of Simons' life were marred by pain, both physical and emotional. His eyes failed him. His body ached. There would be two divorces, debt that drove him to borrow from his aged father, disaffection from his children.

Always searching for solace, friends said, he turned to alcohol, to prescription drugs, to radical physical-training procedures, and, in his final days, to religion. Simons came to Jesus, close friend Gerry James said, one night in the parking lot at the Tournament Players Club at Sawgrass.

"Jim was a seeker," said James, a Jacksonville golf instructor. "He was always looking for a better way. Sin brings shame. You make mistakes, and you live with the regrets. There was a lack of forgiveness for himself that he lived with every day."

Early in the morning of Dec. 8, 2005, Simons, 55, swallowed a handful of pills - including OxyContin and amphetamines - poured himself a glass of wine, and turned the hot tub to high.

Shortly after 6:30 the next evening, another golfing buddy, Ernie Vaderson, discovered Simons partially submerged and phoned police.

Though some still believe it a suicide, the police and medical examiner ruled the death accidental, its cause "multiple drug toxicity."

"When we heard Jim died, a mutual friend speculated right away that it would be drugs," said Masserio. "Jim, he said, was the kind of guy who if the doctor told him to take three pills would take six."

'Crazy or a genius'

Though he'd grown up playing country-club golf with his father, a wealthy businessman, Simons was a striver.

"We came from different sides of the tracks," recalled Masserio. "I was playing in local youth tournaments, and he was playing nationally. But nobody worked harder than Jim."

Simons won the state school championship in 1966, and was the 1969-70 Pennsylvania Amateur champion. He attended Houston on a scholarship but transferred to Wake Forest, where his teammates included future PGA champion Lanny Wadkins.

"Jim was always looking for something that was going to make him better," said Wadkins, now a Golf Network analyst.

When metal woods arrived, Simons became the first player to win a 72-hole, televised PGA event using one, the 1982 Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.

His house, James said, contained perhaps the world's most unusual gym. Among the fitness items police found there were a hyperbaric oxygen chamber, a gyro device that wildly rotated its strapped-in user, and a chair that spun at more than 50 revolutions a minute.

"There was only one other of those chairs in the world," said James. "He would strap himself in, turn it on, and spin. Then he'd stop, jump up, and try to read an eye chart. Jim believed balance was the most important thing in golf, and this thing was supposed to help him relieve instability through focus.

"He was either absolutely crazy or a genius."

Simons also experimented with fixes for his poor vision. He abandoned Coke-bottle glasses for thicker-than-ordinary contacts, which irritated him constantly.

He sought medical remedies too, hoping to improve his performance and relieve a shoulder problem and the chronic pain of fibromyalgia. A briefcase he carried teemed with prescription drugs and vitamins.

"Jim might have been the first person I knew who used vitamins," said Wadkins.

In addition to Pebble Beach, Simons won two other events, including the 1978 Memorial. His best money-list finish was 26th in 1978.

But in 1971, few expected him to contend at Merion.

Simons shot par-71s on Thursday and Friday, tying him with Trevino for third. Those two were paired on Saturday, when Simons shot the round of the tournament, a 6-under 65.

"That kid," Trevino said afterward, "can play a little bit."

The seven-birdie, two-bogey performance gave Simons a 2-shot lead over Nicklaus, his Sunday partner.

By the time Saturday's whirlwind of congratulations and interviews had concluded, Simons was disoriented, so much so that he nearly couldn't get to the course Sunday.

He forgot where he'd parked his car in the hotel lot. Toting his golf clubs and suitcases, it took him 20 minutes to locate the vehicle. The resulting muscle soreness lingered.

"I was so caught up the night before because of the position I was in," Simons recalled a few months before his death. "What I should have done is brought the stuff back into the lobby before looking."

He led by 1 after nine holes. A bogey at 10 dropped him into a tie with Nicklaus, and he lost the lead with another bogey at 14.

Only 1 back at 18, he saw his drive kick unluckily into the rough.

"The marshal told me, 'That's the worst kick I've seen all week,' " Simons said in 2005.

Gambling with a 3-wood in the thick grass, Simons hit a pop-up. The resulting double-bogey finished him.

Seeking order

Simons contended he quit the Tour to devote himself to his business, even though, at 38, he ought to have had many good golfing years ahead.

"Everyone was surprised," said Masserio. "He just dropped out of sight."

Physical pain and marital problems had complicated his life. He and his first wife, the stepdaughter of Wake Forest golf coach Jesse Haddock, had three boys. When Sherry Simons developed breast cancer, friends said, her husband's dependencies worsened.

"She had cancer, and it wasn't something she could control, and she never forgave Jim for not being able to control himself better," Bob Hook, a Wake Forest teammate, told golf writer Bill Fields in 2005. "Neither one was there for the other, and you need help to get through those things."

They divorced in 1996. When Sherry died a year later, the boys chose to live with Haddock and his wife. (Though they did not want to be interviewed for this article, one son said they had reconciled with their father.)

Simons eventually sought treatment for drugs and alcohol. A brief flirtation with the Champions Tour fizzled. "His performance," said James, "was blinded by the opiates."

A second marriage ended quickly in 2005.

In his final months, Simons sought order. The odd gym equipment, James said, was driven partially by a desire for redemption.

"He hoped to start a fitness institute," said James. "He wanted to become financially independent again, to be able to pay back his father and leave something for his kids."

Simons become a born-again Christian, the conversion moment occurring oddly enough at the nearby course where he played and practiced obsessively.

Less than an hour before his 2 a.m. death, an e-mail to James included a photo of a bloodied Jesus from the controversial Mel Gibson movie The Passion of the Christ. The image was not, James said, a symbol of Simons' suffering.

"He was upbeat," said James, who had visited him earlier that night.

Soon afterward, police said, Simons turned the temperature on the hot tub to 104. Wearing only a bathing suit and carrying a glass of wine, he entered. By then, the autopsy noted, he'd consumed a drug cocktail.

"It was my intention to rid him of his dependency through spiritual counseling and nutrition," said James. "He told me he had it under control. But he was hoarding drugs. Police found like a year's supply of the stuff in the house.

"But he was a good man who was addicted to opiates. He didn't want to die. He wanted to remake himself."