PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- Occasionally sports offers up a feel-good story so ridiculously cheerful it almost goes too far over the top, like heaping a dozen cherries on a banana split that's already slathered with hot fudge and whipped cream. Why not just pour a pound of walnuts on top of the whole thing?
That's the Bobby Clampett saga here at the U.S. Open. Thank heaven Clampett only shot 68 for fourth place in the first round. If he were actually ahead of Tiger Woods, the leader at 65, we might scream, ''Fix!''
Clampett, 40, has been retired for five years. He showboated and acted the role of superstar without portfolio. Yet, here on the very course where he grew up and came to prominence -- finishing third in the 1982 U.S. Open at age 22 -- Clampett came full circle Thursday.
Before this day was done, Clampett had wept with joy as he played, then talked afterward with devout conviction about ''divine intervention'' being the only adequate explanation for his play.
''The first 10 holes was almost like playing golf in heaven,'' Clampett said. ''I was fighting back the tears all through the front nine. When I made the (birdie) putt at number nine, the one I hit too hard that was probably going to go 10 feet past the hole, but went right in the middle, I just looked up at heaven and thanked God. My eyes just swelled with tears. It was such a clear demonstration of divine intervention.''
Maybe. Maybe not. If Clampett shoots 80 Friday, presumably he won't attribute his collapse to demonic possession.
After his round, Clampett told, almost to the point of exhaustion, how he tried to qualify for this Open as a lark, then found himself consumed by the quest as one seemingly miraculous event after another pushed him forward.
As an alternate in both local and sectional play, only the last-minute withdrawals of other men let him advance. At Woodmont Country Club two weeks, where he was fourth alternate, there wasn't even room for him on the practice range since it seemed he might not get to play. So, he warmed up by smacking pine cones.
When the words, ''Bobby Clampett, go to the 10th tee,'' finally came over the loudspeaker, his playing partners had already teed off and were walking down the fairway. When Clampett caught them, he asked, ''Who am I replacing?''
The answer: ''Bill Glasson.'' Glasson is one of Clampett's best friends. In fact, when Clampett does golf broadcasts on CBS, he often invites Glasson's son, Maxwell, to sit in the tower with him. You see, the ironies and crosscurrents in all this are so thick, they're hardly believable. Glasson even called Clampett the night before the Woodmont qualifier to say, ''I'm withdrawing. I hope you get my spot.''
Now, Clampett sees symbolism all around him. He wears the same religious wristband (''What Would Jesus Do?'') as Payne Stewart. Who convinced him to do it? Stewart last year. Clampett clearly wonders whether he is fated to succeed his late friend as U.S. Open champion.
Sometimes, to appreciate the present, you have to understand the past. Twenty years ago, golf had a player of such natural talent, spontaneous creativity and analytical intelligence that almost anything seemed possible for him. Clampett wasn't as good as Tiger Woods or Jack Nicklaus or Seve Ballesteros at age 20. But he was, perhaps, comparable to Phil Mickelson in the '90s.
In addition, Clampett had as dazzling an array of trick shots as Chi Chi Rodriguez. Clampett could play as well on his knees as some pros on two feet. In 1979, the U.S. Golf Association used the 19-year-old as a noncompeting marker to fill out an odd-numbered field. In other words, he was supposed to keep a single player company. Instead, the brash, spoiled, sometimes exhibitionistic Clampett began playing to the crowd, hitting trick shots and playing from his knees until the USGA literally yanked the little showboat off the course.
Just three years later, here at Pebble Beach, Tom Watson won the U.S. Open, edging Nicklaus. But Clampett was third. Few doubted he belonged there. However, in golf, the future is never guaranteed. The worst injuries are self-inflicted, and the organ that goes on the disabled list most often is the brain. Clampett's wife once said she could remember the time and place -- a restaurant in Dublin, Ohio, in '82 -- when her husband said the most dangerous words in golf, ''I'm going to change my swing.'' After that, nothing was ever the same.
The greatest gift in golf is sometimes ignorance. Clampett knew everything about the angles, torques and twitches of the ideal swing. That self-consciousness undid him. Blessed is the man, such as Colin Montgomerie, whose whole career is a thoughtless fog. ''It's as simple as taking aim and hitting. I don't think about anything on the golf course,'' said Montgomerie, who may be the most accurate long driver in the world. ''I've always had the ability to stand up and hit the ball. So I don't think about anything ... apart from hopefully where it's going to go.''
On Thursday Clampett may actually have played the most marvelously oblivious round of his career. He expected nothing and told everybody so, terming himself a ''once a month player.'' His mind was on Stewart, on his love of golf and Pebble Beach. His mind was even on God. It was at the very depths of his golf slump in 1984 -- ''my lowest point'' -- that Clampett says he was born again.
By the back nine Thursday, Clampett had already begun to think. And hit the ball into trouble. Instead of going with the flow, relinquishing some degree of control, Clampett was his own worst enemy once again. When it comes to the element of pure faith required for great golf, Clampett may still be unconverted.
''I have a clue to what's wrong,'' Clampett said, heading to the practice range.
Pretty soon, Clampett might be questioning his fate again. But it won't be any deity or devil who's to blame for his fall from grace. Just mean, old golf, that secular religion where justification by arduous works and a final kernel of faith are both essential.
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