Webb Simpson, the 2018 Players Championship winner, has clawed his way back from some lows to remind us why he’s always been considered one of the best young golfers in the game.
In terms of front-running, it ranks right up there with some of the most commanding performances we’ve seen in a big tournament over the years.
Remember Tiger Woods at the 1997 Masters? Or Louis Oosthuizen at the 2010 Open Championship? Well, Webb Simpson’s victory at The Players Championship was just as emphatic.
Sharing the first-round lead on 66 at TPC Sawgrass with a clutch of players, including former world No 1 Dustin Johnson, Simpson never looked back. In the second round he arrived at the iconic par-three 17th hole coming off six consecutive birdies and 11 under par for his round. Two birdies to finish would mean a 59. The world of golf watched – and held its collective breath.
Simpson’s short-iron to the target 134m away cannoned off the wooden boundary guarding the front of the green before landing on the green with too much speed and rolled into the water, one of 21 balls to be lost in the drink on the day. He emerged with a double-bogey five but his round of 63, for 15-under 129, saw him open up the biggest halfway lead in the tournament’s history.
Bear in mind, too, that The Players Championship, always held at TPC Sawgrass, is generally referred to as the unofficial ‘fifth Major’. The women have five Majors a year and if it were the same for the men, we’d be talking about Simpson being a two-time Major champion, to add to his 2012 US Open success.
Before Simpson opened up his five-shot lead through 36 holes, only three players had taken a lead of three or more strokes into the weekend, and all had won: Lanny Wadkins (1979, three shots), Greg Norman (1994, three shots) and Jason Day (2016, four shots).
In the third round things got even more crazy for the 32-year-old. More records along the way. His 54-hole total of 19-under 197 ranked alongside Norman’s score at the same stage during the 1994 Players. And no one had ever let slip a seven-shot lead going into the final round in PGA Tour history. Six had failed from six shots ahead with 18 holes to go, but no one, anywhere, had blown a seven-shot lead.
‘I feel like I’m playing good, solid golf, but … I’ve holed out a few times from off the green and made some long putts,’ Simpson said. ‘To get that score, you have to do that.’ In reality he was playing down the scale of his own brilliance.
All Simpson needed was a final-round 67 to match Norman’s 72-hole record of 264 at the tournament.
However, things were comparatively anti-climactic as the American posted a final-round 73 to sign off victory by four shots over three players, including Charl Schwartzel.
After winning the 2012 US Open, Simpson, then 26, was lauded as one of the coming forces in the game. He’d put together back-to-back rounds of 68 to prevail by one stroke at the Olympic Club in San Francisco, and was sitting with his wife of two years, Dowd, watching cellphone videos of their son James for distraction as Graeme McDowell faced a 25-footer on the final green to force a playoff.
McDowell missed and Simpson whispered to his wife, ‘I won.’ That was his third PGA Tour success and it lifted him up to a career-high No 5 in the World Ranking. He ended the year at No 11 and then in 2013 added another victory to his CV when he claimed the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open, by six shots on a 24-under-par total.
What happened next became the talk of golf.
In May 2013 golf’s governing bodies approved a new rule that outlawed the putting stroke used by four of the previous six Major champions, and going against those who argued long putters were not hurting the game.
But the Royal & Ancient Golf Club and US Golf Association said Rule 14-1b would take effect in 2016. ‘We recognise that this has been a divisive issue, but after thorough consideration, we remain convinced it is the right decision for golf,’ R&A chief executive Peter Dawson said.
The new rule did not ban the long putters, only the way they were used. Golfers were no longer able to anchor the club against their bodies to create the effect of a hinge. Masters champion Adam Scott used a long putter he pressed against his chest. Simpson and The Open champion Ernie Els used a belly putter, as did Keegan Bradley at the 2011 PGA Championship.
With the new rule only coming into effect in January 2016, Simpson decided he’d give himself time to get used to the new situation. In late 2014, he broke his trusted putter over his knee and put the two pieces in his trophy case at home. ‘It won the US Open,’ he said, ‘so it’s staying with me.’
And that was the start of his troubles.
He couldn’t rediscover his stroke. One of the most consistent putters on Tour ever since he first appeared on the scene in 2009, he plummeted to 174th in 2015 and 177th in 2016.
‘He was basically back to square one after spending thousands of hours perfecting a perfectly fine method,’ said Scott.
And then in 2017, Simpson bumped into Tim Clark on the putting green. The South African had won the 2010 Players Championship with a belly putter. ‘Tim asked me how I’d been putting, and I told him, pretty inconsistent. He asked me if I’d ever tried the claw grip, and I said no. So I tried it. I liked it,’ said Simpson. ‘So thanks to Tim, I started putting better last year.’
The combination of a mid-length putter that rests against the forearm – used by another leading pro, Matt Kuchar – and the claw grip has been a game-changer.
‘It turned his whole season and his career around, getting it to where we thought it was going to be. The putter
isn’t a problem any more,’ said Simpson’s caddie, Paul Tesori. ‘For us, it’s nothing short of miraculous. We got to a two-and-a-half year stretch where we didn’t know if we would ever see it again.’
Simpson admitted that the rule change did wreak havoc with his mind when he got on the green. ‘Confidence is so big, and it can change the way you think … even more so, maybe, with putting.
‘With putting there’s read, grain and speed … there’s the stroke, the aimer and then there’s you. I had tournaments where I putted well, but I never had stretches of three months, six months, eight months where consistently I was a lot better. Once that kind of four, five, six months of good putting hit, I started to believe again that I’m a good putter. It had been a long time since I’d felt that and believed it,’ he told the media at TPC Sawgrass.
Simpson was introduced to golf by his late father, Sam, 74, who passed away last November from Lewy body dementia (LBD), the illness that also claimed the life of actor Robin Williams. ‘The double whammy,’ said Sam’s wife of 38 years, Debbie. ‘Parkinson’s and dementia. It’s very hard to diagnose.’
‘I hear his voice constantly,’ Webb says. ‘One thing he preached was to finish strong, no matter how you’re doing. Keep persevering.’ And that also helped him overcome his putting woes.
Webb got started in the game by tagging along with his father at Carolina Country Club. He was the No 1-ranked junior coming out of high school, an Arnold Palmer scholarship recipient at Wake Forest and a semi-finalist at the US Amateur at Hazeltine National in 2006 (with Sam on the bag).
Webb was eight when Sam took him to Ted Kiegiel, the director of golf at Carolina Country Club in Raleigh, to have his swing looked at.
Sam was a good club golfer who usually shot in the high-70s. As Webb’s interest in the game grew, the golf course became a natural place for father and son to bond, whether it was Carolina CC, the Country Club of Landfall in Wilmington, or the Country Club of North Carolina in Pinehurst.
Sam never pushed, taking the view that he wanted golf to be fun. But Webb would always push for more and ultimately found himself playing USGA championships, which led to Wake Forest and meeting his wife-to-be, Dowd.
It was actually Sam who met Dowd first at a party. Upon hearing that she was a sophomore at Wake, Sam offered $100 if she would go on a date with Webb, an incoming freshman. ‘If he’s as cute as you, I’ll go for free,’ she responded. Introduced by a mutual friend, they went out for the first time after Christmas in Webb’s freshman year in 2004. Sam paid for it with that $100. ‘How sweet and special it is,’ Webb said, ‘that my father picked out my wife.’
Whether it was the Bible or The Rules of Golf, Sam tried to live his life by the book. Webb recalls a tournament at CCC, where Sam’s drive landed in a pitch mark. Webb was only nine, and since the club was playing lift, clean and place that day, he suggested that Sam take relief from the pitch mark. Walking to the cart, Sam said that would be bending the rules.
‘That moment stuck with me and might have cost me a couple DQs,’ Simpson said, mentioning in particular the penalty he called on himself when his ball moved a quarter of an inch while less than a foot from the cup on the 15th hole at the 2011 Zurich Classic of New Orleans, and immediately he thought of his dad. The penalty resulted in a tie and playoff loss to Bubba Watson.
After victory at Sawgrass, Simpson told the media: ‘I thought about my dad all day. I think it’s been an emotional week for my mom and sisters and my brother. We miss him like crazy, but I really wanted to do this for my mom [on Mother’s Day].’
Simpson is only 32, a Major champion and now five-time winner on the PGA Tour, including that ‘fifth Major’, The Players Championship. No one will bet against him adding to that tally soon. Although, history is against him when it comes to June’s US Open. No golfer who has won The Players has ever gone on to win the US Open in the same year. It’s a jinx much like the winner of The Masters Par-3 Contest has never won at Augusta that year.
Golf is a strange old game when it comes to such oddities, but Simpson remains in it to win it and change history.
– This article was the cover feature in our June issue, now on sale!