Forever young, remembering Jim Simons

Posted June 7, 2016 - By Jeff Rivard, Director of Special Projects

The Jim Simons Memorial Shelter at Butler Country Club

One the most accomplished golfers from Western Pennsylvania, Jim Simons learned to play the game at Butler Country Club and won many junior and amateur championships prior to turning professional in 1972.

Simons was inducted to the Western Pennsylvania Golf Hall of Fame in 2014. He is also a member of the Knoch Sports Hall of Fame near Butler, and the Wake Forest University Athletics Hall of Fame, where he excelled as a college player. Simons was the last amateur to lead the U.S. Open after three rounds at Merion Golf Club in 1971. I vividly remember watching the championship on television when Simons made his mark.

The Western Pennsylvania Golf Association conducted Local Qualifying for the U.S. Open at Butler on May 12. My outpost that day was the Jim Simons Memorial Shelter located behind the 12th green. I had time to peruse the mementos in the building. Club members and Simons’ family raised $40,000 to assemble materials and upgrade the room. On September 8, 2007, the club held a dinner to honor his memory and the building was dedicated in his name. It was well attended by Butler members and the golf world.

Mementos inside include letters from fellow Wake Forest golfer Arnold Palmer, Demon Deacons teammate and close friend Lanny Wadkins, the featured speaker at the Simons dinner, Jack Nicklaus, who was paired with Simons in the last round of the 1971 U.S. Open at Merion, PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem, and Ben Crenshaw.

Also displayed is a plaque with the names of 75 Butler members who supported the project. Other artifacts include photos, golf equipment, Golf World covers featuring his three PGA Tour wins, newspaper articles, and the scorecards of his 65 in the 3rd round of the 1971 U.S. Open and his course record 63 at Butler, a record that still stands.

Getting an idea of Jim Simons’ accomplishments by stopping in the building is easy. Between the lines is the love this club has shown for their favorite son. Fifty years ago he was “that kid” who practiced putting illuminated by the clubhouse lights, hit range balls for hours at a time, often under the tutelage of head professional Paul Biggy, played 45-54 holes a day, and won his first club championship as a junior high school student.

Simons brings to mind golfers such as Bob Jones, Francis Ouimet, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, and Tiger Woods who figured out this game very early in life.

Simons came from a golf family, as evidenced by winning the WPGA Father & Son twice with his father Ralph. His amateur career of nearly a decade was exemplary. To recognize his premier junior career, the WPGA named its Boys 13 & Under trophy in his honor in 1997. Simons won two PGA of America national junior titles in 1965 & 1966, numerous WPIAL and Pennsylvania high school events, the 1966 West Penn Junior, and the 1969 West Penn Amateur. He qualified for two U.S. Opens before graduating from high school. Simons made the cut in 1968 at Oak Hill Country Club and was paired with Arnold Palmer in the final round.

Simons is among a handful of amateurs in the last fifty years with two top-15 finishes in the US Open in 1971 & 1972. He was also third in the 1970 U.S. Amateur during its stroke play era, and finished runner-up in the 1970 Canadian Amateur and 1971 British Amateur. He was named the 1971 Collegiate Player of the Year.

Simons played on the PGA Tour from 1972-88 where he recorded three victories, the New Orleans Open in 1977, the 1978 Memorial Tournament and the Bing Crosby National Pro-Am in 1982. He was runner-up three more times and recorded three dozen top ten finishes. His career was plagued by vision problems that beset him from childhood and by other injuries. Simons was known as an exceptionally hard worker and a grinder. On the Tour, he was among the shorter hitters, but often led Tour statistics in par-five birdies, a testament to his short game.

He was respected and well liked by his fellow competitors and is beloved at Butler. Simons’ 5th place finish at Merion as an amateur in the 1971 U.S. Open is among the most compelling stories in area golf history. He was one stroke out of the lead on the final teeing ground, which he double bogeyed after gambling from the deep rough on his second shot with a fairway wood.

Simons was the first player to win a PGA Tour event with a metal driver, nicknamed “Pittsburgh Persimmon.” Finchem’s letter mentions Simons’ role on the PGA Tour Policy Board, including his thoughtful and worthwhile contributions. After leaving the PGA Tour in 1988, Simons moved into financial services and worked for Smith Barney from his Florida home.

His great run at Merion was the subject of a television documentary in 2013 when the U.S, Open returned there. When the WPGA produced a centennial videotape in 1998, we were fortunate to secure video of Simons competing.

Ben Crenshaw wrote that he left us way too early, but his legacy here and throughout the golf world endures. For those who will play Butler, spend some time with his highlights behind the 12th green in the Jim Simons Memorial Shelter.