Jeff Simpson wasn't sure if he was dreaming or hallucinating.
Two years ago, the Millville native was halfway through an 18-month stay at Teen Challenge, a faith-based adult drug rehabilitation facility in Rehrersburg, Pa. He was addicted to cocaine, ecstasy and PCP and had been arrested for stealing $80,000 from a safe in his then-estranged wife's law office in Bridgeton. Upon his release from the facility, he faced a one-year sentence in Cumberland County Jail.
"I needed money," Simpson said in a phone interview this month. "I had an addiction that needed to be fed, and I was willing to do anything to feed it."
While in rehab, he contemplated his future. As recently as 2005, he was on track toward becoming a professional golfer. The 1996 Press Player of the Year as a senior at Millville High School, he had moved to Florida after graduation to develop his talent and had enjoyed some success in golf's minor leagues.
Even a few years later, though the drugs had begun to take over his life, he was still good enough to dominate South Jersey tournaments.
"Jeff hits the ball a country mile," Pete Barron III, a former professional and current standout amateur golfer who lives in Mays Landing, recalled recently. "I hit the ball pretty well and he puts it 20, 30 yards past me. He was and is the best local player by far. It's not even close."
But Simpson was unsure if he could, or should, go back to the game.
He dropped to his knees inside his dorm room in the rehab center and prayed for guidance. A few minutes later, he headed over to the only window, gazed out into the recreation area and spotted a rusty 7-iron on a picnic table.
"I have no idea where it came from or how it got there," Simpson said. "This place was on a farm out in the middle of nowhere. All I can say is I specifically prayed to God about it, and he answered my prayers. I'm supposed to be a golfer."
Golf and drugs had been a part of Simpson's life for as long as he could remember.
During his senior year at Millville, he placed second in the Carl Arena tournament by shooting a 76, took third in the state Group IV competition with a 78, then shot 77 to finish fifth - the best performance by a local golfer - in the Tournament of Champions.
Unfortunately, that was also about the time he began experimenting with PCP and other drugs. Simpson was often tired and lethargic during his senior year. His coaches worried he had mononucleosis. Simpson didn't tell them he was usually stoned.
"I grew up in Millville, and I grew up partying," Simpson said. "And it continued after I moved to Florida. I wanted to do things my way and I didn't care what anyone else thought. I had a future in golf. I had played in a few Hooters and Nationwide (now Buy.com) tour events. But I gave it all up to become a full-time drug addict. Until I entered rehab and re-dedicated my life to the Lord in May of 2010, I was an addict for 18 years."
He hit bottom in April 2010. According to a published report, Simpson was arrested at South Jersey Healthcare-Bridgeton Hospital and charged with burglary and theft in connection with a break-in at the law office of Terry G. Tucker in Bridgeton. Simpson's now ex-wife, attorney Deborah Darpino, shared an office with Tucker.
Bridgeton police discovered $40,000 in a golf bag in the back of Simpson's truck while executing a search warrant. They also recovered marijuana, drug paraphernalia and burglary tools.
Simpson was originally sentenced to a year in jail, but after his release from rehab it was reduced to four months of house arrest.
In March 2012, he sent resumes to 32 South Jersey golf courses in search of work. Only one, Ron Jaworski's Running Deer Golf Course in Pittsgrove Township, Salem County, offered him a job.
"Jeff met with myself and (Running Deer head professional) John Tyrell and he told us his story," Running Deer director of golf Klay Knerr said. "Since he's from the area, we decided to take a chance on him. And it couldn't have turned out any better. He's been fantastic."
Simpson, now 35, spent almost a year cleaning clubs, washing carts, filling water coolers and driving the ball-picking tractor on the driving range and still picks up the occasional shift there. But he was also working on getting his golf game back into shape.
Simpson spent this month working on his golf swing with longtime coach Ian Segneri of Missing Golf Link Academy in Bradenton, Fla., in an effort to build a game that will help him enjoy success as a professional.
"I've been working with Jeff off and on for over 10 years," Segneri said. "I saw him for the first time when he got a job at the David Ledbetter (Golf Academy). I saw him playing and I remember thinking that he had absolutely amazing talent. And now he's got the potential to be even better. He's bigger and stronger than he was back then and he has the maturity to match his talent."
On May 9, Simpson joined Barron and a few other area golfers in competing in a U.S. Open local qualifier at Waynesborough Country Club in Paoli, Pa., but did not advance. With the financial backing of some sponsors - Callen Construction, Allen Associates and Kirstein Chiropractics of Vineland - he started playing on the West Florida Golf Tour this week and then will head to some National Golf Association mini-tour events in the Carolinas next week. In October, he'll go to Q-school in hopes of earning a spot on the Web.com Tour.
"I've tried to give this up," Simpson said with a laugh. "I thought about going to culinary school and worked a few other different jobs, but I always come back to golf. I'm a lifer."
He often spends his time on the weekends watching the PGA Tour players on TV. He's confident that he'll join them someday, and if he does, he has a message he wants to spread.
"Golf used to be about money and the material things for me," Simpson said. "But now I want to succeed so that I can help others. I want people to know that no matter what your situation is, no matter how bad things get, there is always hope.
"I've been clean and sober for three years now. But every day is a struggle. It really is one day at a time. Not a day goes by that I don't crave it. But God has blessed me with another opportunity and I don't plan on wasting it."
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