Players Championship: Webb Simpson wins, Tiger Woods stole the show - Sports Illustrated

Webb Simpson Won the Players Championship, but Tiger Stole the Show at TPC Sawgrass

Webb Simpson secured his first win since 2013, but it was fan-favorite Tiger Woods who garnered the biggest crowds at TPC Sawgrass.
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PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — In the spirit of journalistic integrity, the lede shall not be buried: Webb Simpson won the Players Championship on Sunday. After sleeping on a seven-shot lead, he did exactly what he needed to do, shooting a one-over 73 and never letting anyone get closer than four shots behind him.

In the end, despite rinsing his approach on 18 and making double bogey, Simpson finished at an impressive 18 under par and cruised to a four-shot victory. It’s the second-biggest win of his career (behind the 2012 U.S. Open), his first win since 2013 and the richest payday of his life, as Simpson will take a staggering $1.98 million back home with him to North Carolina.  

“It's hard to put it into words what this week has been like,” Simpson said. “I always love coming here.”

Charl Schwartzel, Jimmy Walker and Xander Schauffele finished in a tie for 2nd at 14 under, while a pair of Jasons— Day and Dufner—were a stroke further back in a tie for 5th.

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In the spirit of brutal honesty, Simpson’s play was an afterthought for most of the day at TPC Sawgrass. Whether you love him or despise Tiger Woods—there does not seem to be much in-between with him, though it seems like an increasing portion of people are pulling for him—anyone in attendance or watching on television cannot deny that Woods was the main event on Sunday.

Paired with heir apparent Jordan Spieth, Woods’s front nine electrified the sizable Northeast Florida crowds for the second consecutive day. After shooting 30 on the front side on Saturday, Woods shot a bogey-free 32 on that nine Sunday. And like Saturday, he looked in position to shoot a round for the ages after birdieing the 11th and 12th. And like Saturday, his momentum was sapped with a bogey on 14.

Woods’s tee shot on the island green on 17 was right on line but woefully short, finding the water and deflating the air from what was then still a five-under round. In the end, Woods made his first double bogey on the hole since 2003. He then parred 18 for a three-under 69 to finish at 11 under in a tie for 11th—certainly nothing to scoff at, but a number that does not do the quality of his ball striking any justice at all.

“I didn't play particularly well in the first couple days,” Woods said, referring to his 72-71 start that saw him make the cut on the number before firing a season-low 65 on Saturday to vault up the leaderboard, “but I turned it around this weekend and I got it rolling. I hit the ball well, I controlled it and I made some putts. I knew my putting was right around the corner…and this weekend was it.”

The crowds following Woods and Spieth’s every move were at least three times the size of those following the final pairing of Simpson and Danny Lee, who faded on the back nine to finish in a tie for 7th. Whether that’s a testament to Woods’s star power or an indictment of golf’s desperate reliance on him to drive interest is a legitimate qualm the powers that be at Tour headquarters must consider. When Woods is contending, golf is must-see television, and the buzz he sends throughout the sports world even winds its way to his playing competitors.

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“I did not know Tiger was playing well until I got to 15 tee,” said Harold Varner III, who played a practice round with Woods before finishing in a tie for 7th at 12 under. “That’s when J. Wood, Matt Kuchar’s caddy, told me Tiger is only four back. And I was like, ‘Shut the f up.’”

Woods is, quite simply, the biggest thing in golf by miles. Simpson’s win felt like a bit of a buzzkill.

If Simpson’s triumph was anticlimactic, it was neither undeserved nor unemotional. The 32-year-old took this tournament by the throat on Friday by shooting a course-record tying 63 on Friday, a score that could have been better had he not rinsed his tee ball on 17. He brought a surprisingly soft and scoreable Stadium Course to its knees with a combination of precise ball striking to conservative targets—he hit 82% of his fairways this week, the highest of any Players winner since famous fairway-finder Fred Funk won in 2005—and a hot putter, a belly-length flatstick that he clings to his left arm when he strokes it.

Before the practice was banned in 2016, Simpson had played the entirety of his career anchoring the end of his putter to his belly. When he was forced to switch, Simpson went through a period where he struggled mightily on the greens, an affliction that terminates many a golfing careers.

“After two and a half years, I’m sure he would admit, I got to the point where I didn’t know if he would ever putt well again,” Paul Tesori, Simpson’s longtime caddy, said after Simpson’s round on Saturday.

What ended that two-and-a-half-year stretch was a putting lesson from South African two-time PGA Tour winner Tim Clark. Clark had also anchored the putter before the ban and suggested that Simpson try the "claw" grip. Simpson heeded his advice and his fortune on putting surfaces began to turn. 

“I love this golf tournament and it was here last year where I got that lesson,” Simpson said. “So I think it's pretty special that a year later we come out with a victory."

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Simpson’s triumph on Mother’s Day is made a little extra special for the worst reason of them all: tragedy. In November of last year, Simpson’s father Sam passed away after a long battle with Parkinson’s. That shook Simpson, who refers to his dad as his hero, to his core. His father was the one who introduced him to the game, and Webb and Sam formed an all-Simpson team in weekend foursomes from the time Webb was 11 until he left home for Wake Forest.

“I thought about him all day,” Simpson said of his father. “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.”