SANDY I caught up to Bobby Clampett as he hustled to the driving range at Willow Creek Country Club on Wednesday and asked if he had a minute to talk.
"Sure," he said. "Walk with me, I'm running late."
I said I could wait for a more convenient time, but it was obvious he couldn't. He was in a rush.
Wasn't that always the case?
Clampett doesn't appear to have changed much since his days as a BYU All-American, three decades ago. He's grown up, gained a family, become a TV commentator. He runs golf academies, writes books, fills corporate speaking engagements. But his curly hair still cascades rebelliously from the back of his cap. He remains lean and full of barely contained energy.
And he still has that I-can-beat-anyone grin.
For Wednesday's Utah Championship Pro-Am, Clampett wore a canary yellow shirt, royal blue pants and a red cap.
He always did have a knack for drawing attention.
"What's this, the Rainbow Connection?" teased a colleague.
"Tutti-fruity," shot back Clampett.
Another friend came by.
"Hey," said Clampett, "how are you, buddy?"
Old friends, old times. But new times, too.
This week's Nationwide Tour event marks Clampett's serious return to the game. A regular PGA Tour member for 14 years, he is now nearing 50, the age when players can join the lucrative Champions Tour.
"I've got 19 1/2 months to go," said Clampett, taking several practice swings. "This tournament actually starts my focus on playing, because broadcasting is over for the year. We won't do anything until next year, and I've got several tournaments to play, so ... "
So he's almost there. His second chance at the big time.
Once he was a promising teenager, at age 18 ranked the country's top amateur. That same year he became the youngest ever to finish in the top 24 at the Masters. He finished ninth in the 1980 Buick Open.
He led the 1982 British Open by seven strokes after two rounds, but a third-round 78 doomed him.
His only PGA Tour win was that year at the Southern Open.
Clampett was brash, gifted, blithe and ultimately disappointing.
Yet he often seemed to make news, even when he wasn't on the leaderboard. At the 1979 U.S. Open, he failed to make the cut, but was invited to play as a marker in the championship round. Miffed over his situation, he amused himself and fans by teeing off from his knees on several holes and putting between his legs. A USGA marshal finally removed him at No. 12.
With its myriad etiquettes and protocols, golf had no patience for a spontaneous, inventive, cocky kid.
Eight years ago, he made it back to the U.S. Open, shooting a 68 to trail Tiger Woods by just three strokes. But ensuing rounds of 77, 76 and 77 left him far back.
He had previously entered a qualifying tourney but only earned fourth-alternate status. At the sectional, he arrived to find the driving range packed. Unsure he'd even get to play, he took a club into the nearby woods and began hitting pine cones.
After a representative told him he had made the field, Clampett went on to qualify for the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.
Walk with me.
Now he's building toward the Champions Tour. He has played in two Nationwide events this year, finishing 39th at the Prince Cutter Charity Championship in July. He shot under par in four consecutive rounds.
"I showed a lot of rust, but I showed some signs," he said this week. "Hopefully, we'll come here and kind of pick it up from where we were."
He finished Thursday's first round at Willow Creek with an encouraging 5-under 66.
Same as the old Bobby Clampett, he makes no bones about his ambitions.
"You want to play, always," said Clampett. "Once a player, always a player."
His musings were interrupted when native Utah golfer Jay Don Blake greeted him.
"Hello, Jay Don!" called Clampett. He paused a beat. "You gotta be really close to 50."
"October," said Blake.
"Next month?" teased Clampett. "Oh, so you've got a good month, at least five weeks. Aw, you're a long ways away."
Blake smiled agreeably.
"How close are you?" Blake said.
"Almost 20 months."
Another friend dropped by to offer greetings.
"Nice 'do," said Clampett, looking at the shaved head. "When did that happen?"
Clearly, Clampett was loving it. The camaraderie. The anticipation. He seemed excited, distracted, busy, friendly, confident.
Ready to swing from the forest, his knees, whatever was necessary.
"Playing golf is my first love," he said. "Always has been. I love broadcasting, it's a great career, but it's in my blood to play and to have an opportunity like the Champions Tour, or whatever tour it is, that's where I've got my focus right now."
I left the range wondering if he'll finally accomplish on the Champions circuit what he didn't before. Whether after all these years, he'll play up to his gift.
For some reason, I found myself imagining he will.
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