- Bill Fields
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Deliberate and cautious as a golfer, Jim Simons was known for his precision, as someone who enjoyed peppering the 100-yard flag on a practice range more than hitting tee shots toward its distant end. "Jim could really get the job done," says Ben Crenshaw. "He could pick a course apart." But Simons' exacting style, which very nearly earned him the 1971 U.S. Open title at Merion in Ardmore, Pa., when he was a 21-year-old amateur and resulted in three victories on the PGA Tour, belied the fact that he was a man of extremes.
"[He believed] if two aspirin were good for you, let's take four," says Jesse Haddock, Simons' golf coach at Wake Forest and his former father-in-law. "He was that way."
In college, Simons traveled with a satchel full of vitamins and supplements. "He took vitamins back before we knew what vitamins were," says Lanny Wadkins, a Wake Forest teammate. "He was always big on what could do you some good." He was one of the earliest pros to try metal woods, and his win at the 1982 Bing Crosby National Pro-Am helped popularize the clubs. Later on, Simons put his faith in exotic contraptions that he hoped would improve his fitness, balance or vision, such as getting in a "spinning chair" that twirled at hundreds of revolutions per minute and then immediately trying to focus on an eye chart. "To me it was just nuts," says his close friend Gerry James, a golf and fitness instructor. "I tried it and got dizzy and almost puked. But he was always a seeker on how to get better."
At his house in southeast Jacksonville, Simons also had a "gyro gym," an apparatus that spins a person up and down and all around, something an astronaut might use training for space flights. He even owned a hyperbaric oxygen chamber that one would more likely find at a medical or sports-training facility.
But Simons' favorite thing, according to friends and relatives, was his custom outdoor hot tub, which he equipped with jets powerful enough to bruise and filled with water as hot as he could stand, 105 degrees. A longtime night owl who often didn't go to sleep until 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning, he loved to soak in the wee hours looking for relief from the discomfort of fibromyalgia -- a chronic condition characterized by fatigue, muscle pain and tender points -- and a body banged up by a lifetime as a professional golfer.
"He had that hot tub put in special," says Simons' 81-year-old father, Ralph. "I guess it helped the pain. He wasn't one to tell you his problems. He went to all kinds of doctors and tried everything over the years, and all of them were going to get him well -- but none of them did."
In the early morning hours of Thursday, Dec. 8, 2005, Simons, 55, twice divorced and the father of three sons, followed a familiar routine. First, he e-mailed friends. At 1:30 a.m. he sent a message to James, whom he had met three years ago on the practice range at the TPC at Sawgrass. It was characterized as "a real positive e-mail" by James, who says it included a photograph of Jesus from the movie "The Passion of the Christ" that was indicative of Simons' recently renewed faith. "Jim recommitted his life to Christ about nine months ago," says another friend, Ernie Vadersen. "He came to Christ one night about 8 o'clock in the parking lot at the TPC."
Simons was a regular at Sawgrass. He went there four or five days a week to hit balls or play, often working with James and Vadersen, a golf club designer who developed the Snake Eyes wedges in the 1990s. Even though any realistic chance to sharpen his game enough to perform on the Champions Tour probably had passed -- he didn't break par in six appearances from 2002-2004 -- the light-hitting Simons had picked up more than 20 yards with his driver in the last year, according to Vadersen. He still enjoyed practicing, and if someone asked for help with his swing, Simons was eager to assist and would patiently make his point several different ways if needed.
Friendly, talkative and a big tipper to the TPC employees, Simons sometimes would help the range staff pick up balls. They might well have hoped to see him that Thursday, but a light rain fell throughout the day, so his absence would have been unremarkable. His phone went unanswered. He did not show up as expected early that evening for a small group meeting of men from the Southpoint Community Church, which had become a focal point in his life.
Concerned about his friend's absence, Vadersen went to Simons' house that night to check on him and discovered his body in the hot tub. Shortly after e-mailing James, Simons apparently had gone alone to soak in his hot tub like so many nights before, and he died there at approximately 2 a.m. The Jacksonville medical examiner's office ruled it an accidental death caused by "multiple drug toxicity."
A complete report is pending, but James says Simons, who had gone to rehabilitation for alcohol and prescription drug abuse a decade ago, "was hooked on painkillers really bad," including OxyContin and Ultram. "When he went into his hot tub, I think the combination of him taking all the drugs with the hot water, probably seized his heart."
"He had some prescription medicines," says Ralph Simons. "There were no illegal drugs involved at all. It was a bad combination I guess, the medicines and the hot tub. That's a no-no. He had a tendency to do everything to extremes."
Ralph Simons learned early of his son's tenacity. Jim, in fact, had been an overachiever from childhood; when he was 3 years old, his father took him to Butler (Pa.) Country Club. Ralph gave Jim his adult-length 3-iron and told him to choke down, try to keep pace and pick up when he got to the green. The elder Simons didn't know how long Jim would keep swinging, but a couple of hours later, the little boy with the strawberry blond hair and broad, toothy smile was making his way up the last hole.
"He was a hole behind us, but he played the whole 18," Ralph remembers. "I couldn't believe he could hit the ball that far, that many times."
Ralph Simons and his wife, Orpah, had a 130-acre farm about 35 miles north of Pittsburgh, but didn't farm for a living. A Carnegie Mellon Tech graduate, Ralph was a successful businessman, having invented, with a colleague, the first electric commercial deodorizer. Jim had a steer of his own to look after and an egg route with his sisters, but from that first day at the country club, he developed a hunger for golf that his dad was eager to cultivate.
"I didn't have much problem with his behavior," says Ralph, "but I'd punish him by not letting him play golf. That was the most effective punishment." Ralph was health-conscious, and Jim once confided to a friend that he played poorly at a junior event in Hershey, Pa., because he was tortured by the air's scent. "He had never had candy, and if you're in Hershey, you can smell the sweetness," the friend recalls. "He said it was the worst tournament he played because he could smell that chocolate and wanted it so badly."
Jim got good at golf quickly. He routed the competition in tough conditions to win the 1966 Pennsylvania state high school championship as a sophomore. In 1967, when the event conflicted with U.S. Open qualifying after a rainout, Simons chose the latter. "There were seven spots," recalls Ralph. "He tied with seven people for the seventh spot and won [the playoff] on the fifth extra hole." When the crew-cut 17-year-old teed off at Baltusrol GC (he shot 86-79), he was the second youngest player -- after 16-year-old Mason Rudolph in 1950 -- to play in the event.
And his talent was just starting to blossom. He qualified again for the 1968 U.S. Open at Oak Hill, where he made the cut and got a fourth-round pairing with Arnold Palmer. Simons went off to the University of Houston that fall, but became disenchanted with the golf-factory feel. He transferred after one year to play for Haddock at Wake Forest, where the team was equally strong and the atmosphere more diverse. Simons began dating Sherry Turner, a Meredith College student and his coach's stepdaughter, whom he would marry in 1973, the year after he turned pro. Simons roomed for three years in the Davis dormitory with Bob Hook, a Demon Deacons basketball player from Louisville, and loved being a member of Kappa Alpha fraternity, whose smooth chapter-room carpet was marked by a hole Simons had gouged out with his wedge so he could practice his putting.
"We had fun," said Hook, now a Kentucky car dealer. "We'd try to hit the library bell from in front of the house. Jim was the only one who could do it. It was about a 4-iron for him. I'm not sure where the rest of our balls went -- we hit cars and windows. Fortunately, we didn't kill anybody."
Many of Simons' more serious swings were taken in the company of Wadkins, who was as fast as Jim was slow. "I think playing with him all those years is probably what helped me tolerate all the slow play on tour," Wadkins says. "I used to throw stuff at him when he was over putts. I'd fall in his line." (None of Wadkins' tactics had much effect. Simons was one of the slowest players on tour since Cary Middlecoff. When the tour cracked down on dawdlers in the late 1970s, Simons began walking briskly outside the ropes with the gallery between shots before his partners hit so he could still have enough time when he got to his ball.) But their disparate pace of play didn't keep them from becoming fast friends. "I lived off him," says Wadkins, recalling their daily matches. "I had no money; Jim's dad had some money. We'd play a dollar or two-dollar nassau a day. If I won six bucks off Jim, that was a burger at McDonald's and dinner on the way home from Henny Penny chicken."
Although Wadkins consistently got his meal money from Simons, the outcome was different when the two hotshots, who traveled the summer circuit together in Simons' Volkswagen Beetle, met in the first round of the 1970 Trans-Mississippi Amateur. "He was my pigeon for a while, but the one time the match meant something, he beat me 1 up," Wadkins remembers. "He was the ultimate grinder, no question."
All-out was all Simons knew. As he once explained to Golf Digest: "You take what God gives you -- hey, an eagle seeing a mouse from 200 yards, only God gives that -- and try to improve on it. It's criminal not to."
But Simons could speak of keen vision only as a wishful hypothetical, because from elementary school he was saddled with terrible eyesight -- 10 diopters nearsighted in both eyes, about three times worse than most nearsighted individuals. His glasses were as thick as a beer mug and didn't offer a crisp view. His contacts -- he tried dozens of models -- gave him better vision, but bounced out of position when he blinked and could be nightmarish in the wind or during pollen season.
"He fought his contacts all the time," recalls Logan Jackson, another Wake Forest teammate. "His contacts hurt him so bad, I can't believe he wore them. Nobody else would have worn them if they hurt that bad, but he felt he could see better with them than [with] glasses."
When Simons shot a third-round 65 while paired with Lee Trevino to take a two-stroke lead in the '71 U.S. Open, he was in position to become the first amateur since Johnny Goodman in 1933 to win the title. With three holes left on Sunday, now paired with Jack Nicklaus, Simons trailed by only one shot. After narrowly missing birdie chances at Nos. 16 and 17, his drive took a bad kick into the left rough on the 18th. Simons chose a 3-wood, a shot Wadkins taught him to use to pop the ball from the thick grass, but he hit it poorly. A double bogey dropped him to T-5, and Trevino outlasted Nicklaus in a playoff the next day.
After turning pro, it took Simons nearly five years to win his first title, at New Orleans in 1977. His second victory came the following year at The Memorial, where he prevailed in a final-round grouping with Nicklaus. "He really only talked about one thing [he did] on tour," says Vadersen, "his win at Muirfield. He said he snuck it by Jack a couple of times that last round and got the giggles all the way around."
Simons believed his lack of power caused stresses in his game that would cause his "nerves to wear out before the next guy." In fact, shoulder, wrist and back injuries -- as well as a job in the brokerage business and a desire to spend more time with his family -- had more to do with his leaving the tour after the 1988 season.
Trading the pressure of the tour for post-dinner play illuminated by cart headlights with his boys Bradley, Sean and Ryan at the golf course community where the family lived in Jupiter, Fla., Simons liked his new life. But storm clouds were brewing. Sherry was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer in 1990 when she was 38. Surgery, chemotherapy and radiation prolonged her life, but the stresses on their marriage were adding up. "We both lived for the boys and let the marriage go," Jim told Golf Digest's Tom Callahan in 1998.
While Sherry was battling breast cancer, Jim was struggling with alcohol dependency. "Jim had another side of him that a lot of people didn't know," says a longtime acquaintance. "I don't think he could handle the alcohol." Says Hook: "She had cancer and it wasn't something she could control, and she never forgave Jim for not being able to control himself better. Neither one was there for the other, and you need help to get through those things."
About the time Sherry's cancer recurred, early in 1996, Jim was receiving treatment for alcohol and drug abuse. He filed for divorce Nov. 27, 1996, and Sherry's health worsened as the case worked its way through court. The divorce was finalized just two days before Sherry, 45, died May 7, 1997 in Winston-Salem, N.C. The minor Simons children, Sean and Ryan, who were 16 and 14 at the time, chose to live with Haddock and his wife, Kay, in North Carolina, near where they had been living with their mother.
The fissured relationship with his children weighed heavily on Jim. "I think he went through some things that no one deserved to, really," says Hook. "It made it really tough on him the last few years of his life." Friends say Jim longed to be fully reconnected with his children. Sean Simons, now 25, speaking on behalf of his brothers, declined to elaborate publicly, beyond saying all three, to varying degrees, had reconciled with their father. "We resolved our conflict years ago, and he was long forgiven," Sean says of his relationship with his father.
According to several people who knew him, Simons was in good spirits in the weeks leading up to his death. He continued to deal with the effects of fibromyalgia, whose symptoms can include sleeplessness and headaches in addition to muscle aches. Friends and relatives are convinced, as the official investigation concluded, Simons did not kill himself. "I just never felt it was a suicide," says Hook, who saw Simons three times in 2004 and exchanged e-mails frequently with him until his death. "He was frustrated and battled some depression, but in all the times when he was down, he never indicated that [desire] to me. I just never felt it was a suicide." Simons' second marriage, to Sally Davidson, ended in divorce Feb. 10, 2005, but sources say it was an amicable parting.
Says Ralph Simons: "I can guarantee this was no suicide. If he had gone that way, I'm sure he would have left notes for people. His wallet was laying in the house with a lot of money in it. Lot of different things."
But the fact that Simons didn't purposely end his life isn't much comfort. James regrets that his efforts to get Simons to stop taking prescription painkillers did not work. "I did my darndest to do everything I could do to clean him up," James says. "This past summer he swore to me he was only taking a very minuscule amount of painkillers, and I actually saw a dramatic change in his reaction time and well-being. Quite frankly, Jim hid his drug problem extremely well. He lied to everybody about it. After his death, we found out how severe it was."
If there is a lesson in Simons' death, James hopes it is an awareness of the potential danger of prescription medication. "People don't realize how addictive prescription drugs are," he says. "Anybody can get hooked on them. I don't care how strong mentally you think you are."
Amid the pills and the exercise equipment Simons left when he walked out to his hot tub for the last time were many festive bags filled with candy and trail mix. That was his holiday tradition, packaging and delivering the sweets to friends, neighbors, children at his church, even area golf pros who had extended a courtesy. "He'd make up bag after bag," says James, "and give them to everybody he knew."
Bill Fields is a senior editor for Golf World magazine
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