After a decade of diligent effort, Tim Simpson achieved the status as a top-10 player on the PGA Tour in 1989 and 1990.
But after an ill-fated hunting trip in 1991, Simpson’s thriving professional career turned into an unending episode of the of recent TV series “House,” with Simpson playing the role of a patient with recurring medical problems that plague him for the rest of his life.
Simpson was out of golf for more than five years, returning in his late 40s to prepare for the Champions Tour. He needed risky brain surgery to stop his left hand from shaking, and managed five solid years as a senior before health concerns eventually forced him into retirement after the 2011 season.
With his playing career over, Simpson says he has “shifted gears” and is looking to impart some of the wisdom he gained during his years as a tour player, which included time spent learning directly from some of the game’s legends – Sam Snead, Byron Nelson and Gardner Dickinson.
Simpson, an Atlanta native and long time Lake Oconee resident, has turned to teaching, conducting corporate clinics and motivational speaking to fill the gap left by the loss of his playing career.
Even before his retirement as a player, Simpson worked with aspiring professionals, among them former UGA golfers Nick Cassini and Mallory Hetzel, and ex-Georgia State player and mini-tour pro D.J. Fiese.
As a player, Simpson was known as one of the pre-eminent ball strikers in professional golf, and his association with some of the game’s great players gave him a wealth of knowledge he is anxious to pass on to potential students and those who attend his clinics.
“I’ve spent 50 years playing this game, almost 35 years as a Tour member,” Simpson said in a recent interview. “I’m done with the first chapter of my life. Now I’m looking to share my knowledge.
“Teaching was always my second love to competition. I was helping members at Ansley when I was 14. I’ve always had a vivid understanding of the golf swing.”
Simpson points out that “just because you’re a good player, that doesn’t mean you can teach.” But unlike some of the game’s top players who were natural talents, Simpson made himself into an elite level performer with hard work and close attention to the finer points of the golf swing.
“I’ve always had the gift,” he says. “I can teach a five-year-old and a 30-handicap adult to a PGA Tour player. I’m known for my ability to keep it simple.
“I can get as complicated as you wanna get? But why?”
Simpson recognizes the advances made in technology that have aided golf instructors, but believes there has been an over-reliance on them.
“I’ve very disappointed in the state of the game today. It has become so technical. What concerns me is the direction teaching has gone.
“You’ve got to learn to play the game. That’s what I’ve preached for 25 years. You hit it, chase it and hit it again, and get it in the hole in the fewest strokes. You’ve got to be able to take it from the practice facility to the course, and my highest accomplishment for a player is to teach you how to fix yourself.
“My generation, we had to figure it out ourselves.”
Simpson turned pro after playing just two years on the Georgia golf team and joined the PGA Tour in 1977 at the age of 21. It took Simpson six years to crack the top 60 on the money list and eight seasons to score his first victory in the 1985 Southern Open at Green Island in Columbus.
After eight straight seasons in which he finished between 31 and 75 on the PGA Tour money list, Simpson enjoyed a breakthrough season in 1989. He collected his second and third wins in New Orleans and the Disney Classic, had a pair of runner-up finishes and ended the year 6th on the money list.
Simpson backed up his best ever season with a comparable one in 1990. He defended his title at Disney, lost in a playoff at Doral and led the tour in top 10s (12), placing 8th in earnings.
But on a hunting trip early the next year he contracted Lyme disease, and his budding career was never the same. He fell to 85th on the money list and never cracked the top 125 again, losing his PGA Tour status after the ’94 season.
“It was very difficult dealing with it,” Simpson says. “It was 18 months before I finally got a proper diagnosis, and by that time I was really, really sick.”
Before that, Simpson says he had the standard professional athlete outlook about his health.
“You truly think that you’re Superman. You take a few antibiotics and you’ll be fine. But I got sicker and sicker for a long time. It went through my whole body.”
Simpson spent a year on the Nike (now Web.com) Tour in 1995 and managed three top-3 finishes and a top 20 showing on the money list.
But after one more painful and unsuccessful shot at the PGA Tour in ’97, he was done, returning in 2004 to the Nationwide Tour to try to get prepared for his 50th birthday and the Champions Tour.
In order to have any hopes of competing, Simpson needed to undergo brain surgery in which a chip was inserted in his body to help limit the trembling in his hand that made golf such a daunting task.
“My body could have rejected the implant and I could have had an aneurism,” Simpson said of the potential dangers. “But there was a chance it could stop the trembling in my left hand, and if it stopped, there was a chance I could play again.
“It was very risky surgery, but the fire never went out for me. One of the things I’m most proud of is that nobody cane ever say Tim Simpson gives up. I practice what I preach, and giving up was not an option.”
The surgery enabled Simpson to enjoy five reasonably productive seasons on the Champions Tour. Although he never achieved his goal of winning again, he placed between 26th and 46th on the money list his first five years on the tour before a variety of other ailments hampered him throughout the 2011 season.
He took one last shot late that year at Q-school, coming up short despite a 66 in his next to last competitive round.
When Simpson retired he was dealing with physical issues with his ribs, fingers and other body parts, but is still able to play, just not at a tour-quality level or without considerable discomfort.
“I had my career taken away a second time. I still love to play the game, but I’m not able to compete.”
Simpson still works occasionally with retired Atlanta area club professional Art Kraft, his long-time teacher, even though he is no longer a tournament player.
“I’m still learning. Golf is the study of a lifetime.”
Simpson uses his knowledge from years as a tour player and from working with the likes of Snead, Nelson and Dickinson to help golfers make improvements in their games.
“I can enlighten this person who maybe never had something click with them,” he says. “If I can explain something to them, they can feel it, and those are the people I can make the biggest improvements with.”
One thing Simpson wishes he learned while he was among the game’s top players involved the aspect of his game that kept him from achieving even more during his career.
“My biggest regret was that while I did so well from tee to green, I didn’t carry that to my putting. I believed in my ability to hit the ball, but I thought mechanics when I putted. I listened to people and became a believer that I couldn’t putt. You become what you think.”
Simpson says he is gratified that he got a second shot at a professional career after all he went through, and admits that his experience of dealing with his situation changed him on the course.
“I was a real hard-ass the first go-round. My focus was on winning. If you finished second, you lost. The second time around, I lost that intensity. It wasn’t quite like the old days.
“My goal was to win again, and even though I didn’t, I made a successful comeback. I was able to give people with a neurological disease some hope.”
Simpson’s experience at dealing with adversity has given him a different perspective, and his story has provided him a vehicle to connect with audiences at clinics or speeches on topics beyond golf.
By Mike Blum