Jim Simons always had that golden boy look about him, especially for a golfer. He had the strawberry blond hair of Huck Finn, the boyish grin of Tom Watson, the bleached eyebrows of Ben Crenshaw.
As a teenager growing up in Butler, he won the West Penn Junior Championship in 1966, the West Penn Amateur in 1969 and the Pennsylvania Amateur in 1969 and 1970. He was the second-best amateur to come from Western Pennsylvania, behind a guy named Arnold Palmer, and he even went to the same college as the kid from Latrobe -- Wake Forest.
And he was maniacally intense about nearly everything he did, especially golf.
"He'd come home from practice and he always brought a hula hoop with him," said Bucky Parisi, a longtime family friend. "He'd put it out there about 110 yards and say anything outside that hula hoop is unacceptable. His short game was absolutely incredible."
Simons wasn't the most naturally gifted golfer to make it on to the PGA Tour, but he quite possibly could have been the hardest working. He parlayed that work ethic into three PGA Tour victories, including the 1978 Memorial, and for many years was a trivial footnote as the first person to win a PGA Tour event using a metal driver (1982 Bing Crosby National Pro-Am). That distinction was amended years later to credit Ron Streck, who said he won the lesser-known 1978 Texas Open using a metal driver.
"I can remember when Jim was young, and I mean young, like 8 years old, he wanted to be a professional golfer," said his best friend, Steve Leone, of Evans City. "Jim was not naturally talented. He had to work very hard, and he did work very hard. When Jim went out on tour, I can remember every year he'd say these kids come out and they're better and better every year and I have to work hard to keep up."
Nearly eight years have passed since Simons died, at age 55, at his Jacksonville, Fla., home, and Leone is still disturbed by the mystifying circumstances under which his childhood friend passed away. When he talks about Simons and the life he left behind -- a glamorous PGA Tour career but two failed marriages, alcoholism and drug addiction for pain -- Leone speaks in halted sentences, taking deep breaths and trying to find the right words to describe the man he calls "the nicest person I've ever met."
Those memories will be heightened this week when the U.S. Open returns to the Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pa., the scene of what nearly was one of the most remarkable moments in golf history more than four decades ago.
In 1971, as a junior at Wake Forest, Simons nearly became the first amateur since 1933 to win the U.S. Open. He led after three rounds, was paired with Jack Nicklaus the final day and still had the lead heading into the back nine on Sunday.
But, needing a birdie on the final hole that would have put him in a playoff with Nicklaus and Lee Trevino, Simons double-bogeyed No. 18 from the right rough and finished tied for fifth.
"He didn't do anything in moderation," Leone said. "He'd take vitamins, if two were good, four were better. He did the same thing when he practiced his golf game. He would practice, I wouldn't say to excess, but at one time he was 125th in driving distance and first in scoring on par 5s on the PGA Tour, which tells you a little about being able to get up and down.
"I can't say he was compulsive, but everything he did, he had to work at very hard to excel. Some of that was a carryover with the drug thing."
For the sake of one birdie
Merion Golf Club is to Philadelphia what Oakmont is to Pittsburgh.
It has a golf history richer than Godiva chocolate, and is the scene of the most iconic photographs in golf -- such as Ben Hogan hitting a 1-iron from the 18th fairway in the final round of the 1950 U.S. Open he won in a playoff.
In 1971, Merion was the site for the playoff showdown between Nicklaus and Trevino, two of the game's biggest stars. Trevino is remembered as much for playfully tossing a rubber snake at Nicklaus on the first tee as he is for his playoff victory against the Golden Bear.
But even that historic moment might have been overshadowed if Simons, the 21-year-old kid from Butler, held on for just a few more holes.
After being paired with Trevino and shooting 65 on Saturday to take a two-shot lead, Simons went into his final-day pairing with Nicklaus with a shot at golf history. No amateur had won the U.S. Open since John Goodman in 1933.
"Jim was ready to go that last day," said Lanny Wadkins, who played golf with Simons nearly every day when they were teammates at Wake Forest and was his roommate that week at Merion. "He put on a mock turtleneck shirt, but he had it on backward. He was a little nervous going out to play with Jack."
Simons was an accomplished player. A two-time All-American at Wake Forest, he played on the U.S. Walker Cup team with Wadkins in 1970 and lost to Steve Melnyk in the championship match of the British Amateur at Carnoustie that same year.
Still, few expected him to contend at Merion, let alone push two of golf's greatest players for more than 63 holes.
"We were good for each other -- I made him better, he made me better," said Wadkins, a former PGA champion and 21-time winner on the PGA Tour. "It was a good friendship. We probably played together four to five days a week. It was just the competition. We were both good players. If you're always the best player, you're not going to get better. We challenged each other."
Wadkins, though, didn't get to see a lot of what happened with Simons at Merion. He was playing in the 1971 U.S. Open, too, and ended up finishing tied for 13th after a final-round 68.
But the performance was nothing like his roommate's.
Simons shot 71 on Thursday and Friday and was in 11th place after two rounds. Paired with Trevino on Saturday, Simons made seven birdies and shot the low round of the tournament, a 6-under 65. That gave him the 54-hole lead, by two shots over Nicklaus.
Afterward, Trevino said, "That kid can play a little bit."
On Sunday, Simons stayed strong. He maintained a one-shot lead after nine holes and headed to the back nine at Merion with resolve. But a bogey at the short 303-yard 10th dropped him into a tie with Nicklaus, and he lost the lead with another bogey at No. 14 -- the beginning of what might be the toughest five finishing holes in U.S. Open history.
Still, when he got to the 72nd hole, Simons had a chance. He needed a birdie at the par-4 18th to gain a Monday playoff with Nicklaus and Trevino. But he saw his drive take a nasty kick into the rough and set up an untenable approach to the green.
"The marshal told me, 'That's the worst kick I've seen all week,' " Simons would say years later.
But, because he needed a birdie, Simons gambled with a 3-wood from the rough, a decision that had a somewhat predictable result. He popped up his second shot and eventually made double bogey. Simons finished with 76 and tied for fifth, three shots behind Trevino, the playoff winner.
"I lost five pounds that week," said Ralph Simons, Jim's father, who remains a member at Butler Country Club. "What people don't realize is, he was one shot out of the lead with four holes to play ... and he was still gambling trying to make birdie."
A painful final chapter
Simons' demeanor -- pleasant and accommodating -- belied the problems that churned on the inside.
Divorced twice and the father of three boys, he battled physical ailments most of his life, including fibromyalgia, a chronic disorder that caused pain and tenderness in muscles and also sleeplessness and headaches.
Early in the morning of Dec. 8, 2005, Simons went to sit in his hot tub at home at 1:30 a.m. because he couldn't sleep. According to the Jacksonville medical examiner, Simons swallowed a handful of prescription pills, had a glass of wine and turned the hot tub to high.
Shortly after 6:30 p.m. the next day, another golfing buddy, Ernie Vaderson, discovered Simons partially submerged in the hot tub.
The medical examiner's office ruled Simons' death an accident caused by "multiple drug toxicity." Simons' father, Ralph, said his son was taking medication for fibromyalgia, and that, coupled with the extreme water temperature in his hot tub, may have been a fatal combination.
But, one of Simons' best friends, Gerry James, a golf and fitness instructor, told Golf World magazine that Simons was hooked on painkillers "really bad," including OxyContin and Ultram -- prescription drugs often used for pain relief in cancer and osteoarthritis patients.
"A lot of people, to me, made it look like he was a drug addict," Parisi said. "I guess, to a degree, maybe he was. But he did it because he was constantly in pain. Everything in his system was prescription drugs."
The circumstances surrounding his death have caused some to speculate whether Simons committed suicide. The people who have known him the longest dispute that.
"In my mind, I'd be 99 and 9/10 percent certain that it was not a suicide," Leone said. "Now, the 1/10 percent is, I was not sitting there with him. It just doesn't register that it was anything other than an accident."
Then Leone paused and added, "I wish I had been there, that's all I can say."
Leone said Simons had developed a drinking problem earlier in his career, which, in part, led to the dissolve of his first marriage to his wife, Sherry, stepdaughter of his Wake Forest golf coach, Jesse Haddock.
When Sherry Simons developed breast cancer, that only served to heighten her husband's problem. Sherry died in 1997, one year after the couple divorced. Her three boys chose to live with Haddock and his wife, not their father -- a decision that crushed Simons.
Simons eventually sought treatment and attended Alcoholics Anonymous in an attempt to recover from the disease. He even met his second wife there. However, that marriage was brief.
"The drinking became an issue and it was an issue at home." Leone said. "But I can tell you when things fell apart with them and he went to AA, he really did quit drinking.
"Jim had three passions in his life -- golf obviously; his boys big-time, and the stock market later on, because that was second career. He spent a tremendous amount of time with his boys when he was home. He loved spending time with his boys.
"And to a large degree, that was a lot of what took him off tour. When they couldn't travel together because the boys were in school, I can't say he got disenchanted with the tour, but he hated being away from his boys. When his marriage fell apart, they were basically separated from him. Bottom line was, there was no relationship and I know it hurt him a lot."
The pain endured by Simons is still felt by the people who have been left behind. But, for a brief moment this week, they will be reminded about what he did at Merion, how the golden boy from Butler almost took down two of the game's biggest names and astounded the golf world.
And that will make them smile.
Gerry Dulac: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @gerrydulac.