2004: Tim Simpson: Back from the abyss

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One day you’re in full strut, having cracked the top eight in PGA Tour earnings in 1989-90, and the next your body doesn’t function properly. The wreckage of Tim Simpson’s bright game began in spring ’91 with supposed tick-transmitted Lyme disease and its migratory arthritis. A benign essential tremor, similar to Parkinson’s, made his left hand shake and halted his career six years later. While teaching golf when out of competition during the next five years, he underwent spinal fusion neck surgery in 2002. Just when he thought he had maxed out on neurologists, cortisone shots and muscle and joint stiffness, he hurt his wrist and elbow last fall.

“I’m a walking cadaver,” Simpson says.

Mental anguish accompanied the physical woe. He finalized a “devastating” divorce in 2000 after 19 years of marriage, moved from Atlanta to the rustic solitude of Lake Oconee, Ga., and carried dark thoughts.

“The lowest point in my life,” says the man who won four Tour titles and had 66 top-10 finishes in 1978-91. “I had given away half of my life savings, I was out of golf, it looked like I never would play again, and I’m living alone in a rural area with nobody as a friend but my dog, my little Jack Russell terrier, Annie. Things didn’t look good.”

They look better now, so much so that Simpson says he wakes up smiling daily. He fell in love again, remarried in 2002, found a neurologist who prescribed next-generation medication to lessen the hand tremors, and had a victory among five top-15 finishes in six mini-tour events last year. When he won the over-45 Cadillac Classic Series Championship last fall, his first title of any kind in 13 years, he was so emotional he cried in his car.

Buoyed by all that, particularly new wife Leigh Anne’s support, an enthused Simpson embarked on a full-fledged comeback May 6-9 at the Chattanooga Classic on the Nationwide Tour. His first round in a PGA Tour-sanctioned event since five 1998 appearances came on his 48th birthday. Players with enough career earnings (such as Simpson, $3.66 million) can play the Nationwide for two years leading to the Champions Tour. Simpson plans to make 15-20 Nationwide starts this year against the collection of young rising stars, late bloomers, has-beens, never-weres and other aging reclamation projects.

A two-year exemption on the over-50 tour, based on his four victories, awaits in 2006 and serves as motivation.

“I have a headline for the story,” Simpson volunteered. “Fighting Back. Or, Never Give Up.”

He says his swing speed is 4 mph faster than it was in his prime, back when he was a top-10 cash cow, back when he finished sixth and eighth in earnings, back when he was the first player ever to reach 9 under par in a U.S. Open, back when he was considered one of golf’s best ball-strikers. He figures he’s at 75 percent of his best because of the shakes, but that simple swing still produces straight drives and accurate iron shots with a draw. And his confidence has returned.

“I’m very excited and expect good things,” Simpson said. “I have pretty high goals. Not that I don’t pray every day that God stops my left hand from shaking. The medication helps the tremor, but the (latest) doctor told me he can’t cure me and it’ll only get worse with time. I told him, ‘If you can make my hand stop shaking and give me three years on the Senior Tour, it could be one of the greatest happily-ever-after stories.’ Only God knows if I’ll win on the Champions Tour, but at least I’ll know I’ve given it my all.”

Simpson says the tremors mostly affect his chipping and pitching, that he sometimes has trouble pulling the club back. He was considered an average putter at best in his prime, and one wouldn’t think the shakes would help. But NGA/Hooters Tour regular D.J. Fiese, Simpson’s prized student and frequent playing companion, says, “I don’t see that (average) guy. I see him making putts from everywhere.”

Fiese, 23, sees a lot he likes in Simpson, who at the Harbor Club became the lone modern-era teacher who was a top-10 player. Fiese calls Simpson the “best teacher around” and “still the best ball-striker I’ve ever seen.” It follows that he expects his friend “Big Daddy” to succeed.

“I see him making it back on the PGA Tour and then tearing it up on the Champions Tour,” says Fiese, who says Simpson has helped him gain 60 yards off the tee since Fiese left Georgia State in 2002. “It’s just a matter of making putts.”

For certain, Simpson’s mysterious illnesses led to more than a decade of lost potential riches. “I was rockin’ and rollin’,” he said of the heyday. But he never finished better than 134th in earnings after 1991, the year he got sick. He says doctors don’t know for sure if it was Lyme disease he contracted. All he knows is that he went turkey hunting and woke up in a friend’s lodge with about 100 ticks on him.

“The only explanation is that a guest the week before had too much to drink and fell asleep in bed with his hunting clothes covered with ticks and that they bred and I got covered with them,” Simpson said. “So I went from a guy on top of the world, a lock to make the Ryder Cup team, to someone who couldn’t make a cut.”

The migratory arthritis and stiffness linger today. At the worst, his shoulders felt “stabbed” while he slept, sometimes in ice bags. Even with those huge forearms, he couldn’t pick up his 20-pound baby. A Houston doctor told him he lost 85 percent of his strength. Then came the tremors, something his sister also suffered, which might suggest a hereditary link.

“I struggled to take the club back and still do on a daily basis,” he says. “For a guy to be called one of best ball-strikers in history to not get the club back is like an Olympic sprinter being told he has to run with a 50-pound backpack on.”

Before he took ill, the quick-witted Simpson was so confident that his personality could offend. He admits he could be brash. “He rubbed some people the wrong way,” said longtime friend Tom Pernice Jr., a Tour veteran. “But he has a big heart and has always liked helping young players.”

Simpson says his medical ordeal has softened him. Perspective carried a hefty price.

“It’s humbled me,” Simpson said. “I was a hard ass. I was edgy. I didn’t have time for petty things. But I’ve mellowed a lot. I’m much more laid back.

“I used to take things for granted. I don’t anymore.”

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