Jim Simons was probably the second-best amateur golfer to emerge from Western Pennsylvania, behind a man named Arnold Palmer. And he became a trivia footnote in the annals of professional golf when he became the first player to win a televised PGA Tour event using a metal driver.
But Mr. Simons, a Butler native and former West Penn Amateur champion, became nationally known for one weekend in June 1971 when, as a junior at Wake Forest University, he nearly won the U.S. Open.
Mr. Simons, who won three times during a PGA Tour career that flourished in the late 1970s to mid-1980s, was found dead in his home in Jacksonville, Fla., last Thursday. He was 55.
The cause of death has not been determined, pending an autopsy. His father, Ralph, who lives in Butler and Atlantis, Fla., said his son was being treated for fibromyalgia, a chronic disorder that causes pain and tenderness in muscles and soft tissue.
"He might be the nicest person I ever met in my life," said Steve Leone, of Evans City, who knew Mr. Simons for 48 years. "I've seen him, for being a star, getting pulled in a lot of different directions, and I never saw him not take time for someone."
A two-time All-American at Wake Forest and a 1968 graduate of Knoch High School, Mr. Simons won three times from 1978 to 1982 on the PGA Tour and finished a career-best 26th on the money list in 1978.
His most significant victory came in the 1982 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am when he used a Taylor Made metal driver instead of the traditional persimmon wooden club.
For years, Mr. Simons was credited with being the first player to use a metal driver to win a tour event. It wasn't discovered until last year that Ron Streck used a metal driver to win the 1981 Houston Open, an event that wasn't televised and was shortened to 54 holes because of rain.
Mr. Simons also won the 1977 New Orleans Open and the 1978 Memorial, and earned nearly $1 million during a 16-year career despite a number of physical ailments. Mr. Simons stopped playing the PGA Tour in 1988 to spend more time on his stock brokerage business.
His most recent professional event came in 2004 when he played in the MasterCard Classic on the Champions Tour, tying for 75th.
"Jim suffered from several physical issues, most notably the fact he was legally blind," said PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem. "He overcame those obstacles, however, and served as an inspiration to others."
As a teenager growing up in Butler, Mr. Simons won the West Penn Junior Championship in 1966, the West Penn Amateur in 1969 and the Pennsylvania Amateur in 1969 and 1970.
He teamed with his father, Ralph, to win the West Penn Father-Son tournament in 1965 and 1967 and the 1971 National Father-Son tournament at Atlantis Golf Club, where his parents are still members. Several years ago, the West Penn Golf Association named a trophy after Mr. Simons to be presented to the 13-and-under West Penn Boys champion.
Mr. Simons' greatest feat as an amateur came in the 1971 U.S. Open when, at age 21, he shot a third-round 65 to take a two-shot lead after 54 holes at Merion Golf Club near Philadelphia. That set up the possibility of Mr. Simons, a junior at Wake Forest, becoming the first amateur since John Goodman in 1933 to win the event.
But he double-bogeyed the final hole and shot 76 to finish tied for fifth, three shots behind winner Lee Trevino.
"I lost five pounds that week," his father said. "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."
Mr. Simons is survived by three sons, Bradley, Sean and Ryan; his parents, Ralph and Oprah; and three sisters.
Gerry Dulac can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1466.