The little grin said it all.
This is an article from the June 25, 2012 issue
On Sunday evening, atop a sand hill not far from the Pacific, Webb Simpson was facing the most important putt of his life on the fiendish final green at Olympic Club. He had just played one of the better chips in the recent history of the U.S. Open, what playing partner Nicolas Colsaerts called "an impossible shot. With that lie he had, he was dead. That was a kind of miracle." Now Simpson faced a three-foot par putt with the national championship hanging in the balance.
No Open venue is haunted by more ghosts than Olympic, where Hogan and Palmer and Watson all met their demise. The amphitheater around the final green was swollen with maybe 10,000 people who had come to witness history, but as Simpson looked over his putt, he instinctively tilted his head toward the clubhouse and locked eyes with his wife, Dowd, who only seconds earlier had materialized on the steps of a footbridge far up the hill.
Thirty-four weeks pregnant, over four days she had hoofed all 72 holes with her hubby. Simpson flashed his college sweetheart a jaunty smile that was so at odds with the circumstances that Dowd covered her mouth with her hands in surprise. Then Simpson strolled up to his ball and brushed in the putt. "I don't know how, but he is always aware of me," Dowd said. "In the old days, when he wasn't playing in front of big crowds, he would say he could tell how close he hit his shot by how loud I was clapping. Now, with me being pregnant, I think it helps him keep everything in perspective."
The Simpsons walked hand in hand to the clubhouse to await their fate. Back on the 16th hole one of golf's most celebrated brawlers, 2003 U.S. Open champion Jim Furyk, had made a brutal bogey on the par-5, giving Simpson a one-stroke lead, which he didn't learn about until he was seated in the NBC tower. Playing with Furyk in the final group, 2010 U.S. Open champ Graeme McDowell birdied the 17th hole to pull into a tie for second, a shot back. After pressing flesh with Bob Costas, Simpson and his bride settled in front of a TV in a quiet corner of the locker room to watch Furyk and McDowell play the 72nd hole.
Dowd pulled out her iPhone. "We needed something to help us relax," she said. Up to this point their entire stay in San Francisco had been leisurely, what Webb called a "babymoon"—a last chance to chill before another little one arrives. Few players treat the U.S. Open like a working vacation, but this was the first time the Simpsons had gone away without James, their 16-month-old son, who was back home in Charlotte with his grandparents. After Webb's first-round 72, he and Dowd drove down Lombard Street, strolled on the Golden Gate Bridge and took in a movie. Throughout the week they enjoyed long, leisurely meals and the chance to sleep in. All of this helped mellow out Simpson, who came into Olympic having missed the cut in his last two starts. (He was pressing to back up last season's breakthrough, when he began the year ranked 208th in the world but went on to win twice and finish second on the money list and 10th in the World Ranking.) Simpson had begun Father's Day by Skyping with James, and it left him a little heavy-hearted. So now, as Dowd huddled with her husband in Olympic's clubhouse, she cued up a video of the little guy taking his first steps, which left her brushing away a tear. On the TV in front of them, Furyk yanked a short iron into a fried-egg lie in a greenside bunker, the last in a series of mistakes in yet another blown major championship. McDowell knocked his approach 25 feet above the hole, but Webb seemed to barely notice, as Dowd was now playing a video of James giggling at his dad's funny faces. Webb doubled over with laughter.
Dowd finally put away the phone as McDowell stepped to what every kid dreams about until he grows up and has to face it: a do-or-die putt on the final hole of the Open. He misread it badly, and just like that Simpson, a 26-year-old Southern gentleman, had won the U.S. Open on only his second try. "I couldn't feel my legs most of the back nine," Simpson said, but he closed out the tournament with eight straight pressure-proof pars. This followed a mid-round burst during which he birdied four of five holes sandwiched around a spectacular up and down from a greenside bunker on the 9th. His two-under-par 68 left him at one over, a dream winning score by USGA standards.
Simpson's energetic play down the stretch owed something to a newfound dedication to fitness that began last year. In 2011 he also linked up with a new caddie, Paul Tesori, the former Tour player who looped for Vijay Singh during much of his Hall of Fame run. Tesori has what he calls a "no b.s. policy," which is to say he's not shy about giving Simpson pointed advice. During his man's second straight missed cut, Tesori detected a flaw in Simpson's backswing, and in the run-up to the Open they spent hours correcting it.
Simpson's work ethic and openness to new ideas has fueled his late-blooming success. He played at Wake Forest on an Arnold Palmer scholarship but didn't win until his senior year, when he became the rare college player (back then) to use a belly putter. He reached the PGA Tour in 2009 but had to fight to keep his job that season and the next as he patiently addressed the weaknesses in his game.
Simpson is a regular at the Tour's Bible study and has TITUS 3:3--7 stitched on his cap; he and Dowd both said they calmed themselves through prayer on an exceedingly stressful Sabbath. "It was kind of a crazy atmosphere out there, but he played with a lot of peace," said Colsaerts. "You can see that he believes in himself."
Simpson's equanimity was the difference as far more celebrated players were pushed to the breaking point on a firm, fast, relentless setup. Luke Donald and Rory McIlroy, the top two ranked players in the world, missed the cut while five-time Open runner-up Phil Mickelson failed to make birdie on a par-5 and finished 65th at 16 over, his worst showing since 1994. But what will really linger is Tiger Woods's most shocking meltdown in the post--fire hydrant era.
Woods's long road back took him to the Memorial, at which he stole a victory two weeks before the Open with some vintage magic on the closing holes. At his peak Woods was defined not only by otherworldly golfing skill but also a metaphysical ability to control the outcome, willing his ball into the cup at critical times and using a kind of golf voodoo to force his opponents into blunders. The Open became a chance to further reclaim some of that mystique, and he took control of the tournament with opening rounds of 69 and 70 that were a ballstriking tour de force. Woods maneuvered his way around Olympic with high, soft butter-cuts, low, piercing trap-draws and everything in between. He was changing speeds so effectively he elicited comparisons not to Jack Nicklaus but to Matt Cain, who had kicked off Open week with a perfect game for the hometown Giants. "You talk about a pitcher having command of all his pitches? That's what Tiger was like," said Jim (Bones) Mackay, who watched Woods's first two rounds while caddying for Mickelson in the same pairing. "He's leading the Open and he hasn't made a putt yet. That's scary."
Over the first 36 holes Woods hit driver only six times, using an iron off the tee on seven of the par-4s, including the beastly 498-yard 5th hole. Woods's discipline as a tactician was thrown into sharp relief by the caveman golf of his playing partner Bubba Watson. The Masters champ mindlessly bashed driver 11 times a round, trying to dictate his brutish style to an unyielding course. Watson predictably missed the cut on rounds of 78--71. "It beat me up," Watson said, but really the carnage was self-inflicted.
Woods stuck to his game plan on Saturday but was undone by sloppy execution with his scoring clubs and a clear lack of conviction. As the round started to go pear-shaped, he took more and more practice swings, backing off shots and staring at the treetops, trying to ascertain the seaside zephyrs or, perhaps, his place in the cosmos. With a two-iron on the 14th tee, he produced a drop-kicked semitop that was one of the worst-sounding shots of his career. Still, it was his wedge play that sunk the round. In his heyday under Hank Haney, for four years running Woods was in the top five on the PGA Tour in proximity to the hole on approaches from 50 to 125 yards. He was a superintendent's best friend, picking his ball off the turf with the daintiest of divots. Now, with his reconstituted swing, Woods is taking divots the size of a $30 steak, and a corresponding lack of distance control has him 135th on Tour from 50 to 125 yards. Worse, he can no longer redeem mediocre approach shots with supernatural putting. During the third round of the Open his putts were repeatedly too meek to reach the hole. "His putter was the difference for a long, long time," says Davis Love III. "That was how he dominated. He doesn't make them all like he used to."
As a 36-hole leader in a major, Woods had never shot worse than even par in the third round, but on Saturday only eight of the 72 players who made the cut signed for a bigger number than his 75. After skidding to 14th place, Woods was asked about his confidence. "I feel good," he said. "I wasn't very far off today." Woods used to lie only to reporters. Now he's lying to himself. He began his Sunday charge by playing the first six holes in six over par, shot 73 and finished 21st, six shots back.
Woods's lost weekend should put to rest any notion that he is "back." The single-minded, indomitable player who lived in a bubble of his own making is never coming back. Woods will win more tournaments, but he's now like a lot of other guys on Tour—he can hit all the shots, but he is vulnerable to pressure and undermined by doubt.
Woods's shakiness on Saturday was in stark contrast to his steadfast playing partner. Furyk doesn't have Woods's brawny biceps, but he radiates a coal-country toughness. Growing up in Lancaster, Pa., Furyk was a quarterback, point guard and catcher. "When it comes to crunch time, he wants the ball," says Zach Johnson. "He's good at rising up and overcoming the nerves." Furyk's gritty 70 on Saturday left him tied with McDowell, two clear of the field and four up on Simpson, who had started the day in 29th place but shot into a tie for eighth, matching McDowell's 68.
McDowell stumbled at the outset of the final round, handing Furyk sole possession of the lead by the 4th hole. He guarded it jealously, even as eight players lurked within two early in the back nine. On the 12th hole Furyk drained a 30-footer to save par and seemed destined to finally add a second major championship victory (against 18 top 10s) and punch his ticket to the Hall of Fame. But he bogeyed the par-3 13th after an errant tee shot, giving Simpson his first share of the lead, and then set up the decisive bogey at 16 with a duck hook off the tee, the lowlight of a birdieless 74. McDowell made par on only four of his final 10 holes in a wild 73 and said afterward, "My caddie [Ken Comboy] has a great analogy: The U.S. Open is like a really fast, scary roller coaster that you get on and at the time you're not sure if you like it. But once it's done and you look back, you realize that you had a lot of fun and you would like to do it again."
When it was over, the protagonists went their separate ways. The insouciant McDowell, 32, was off to tip a pint or three. Webb and Dowd couldn't stop grinning at each other. They had locked eyes during the champion's press conference and again at the trophy presentation, during which he called Dowd his best friend and said, "I couldn't have done this without her support." Still, there wasn't much time to savor the victory as they were racing to catch a red-eye flight home. "Webb wants to be there when James wakes up in the morning," Dowd explained. He takes the family-man thing so seriously, he'll most likely skip next month's British Open because he doesn't want to be overseas that late in Dowd's pregnancy. Then again, skipping one major isn't a big deal, because with his precise game and unflappable demeanor Simpson figures to have the chance to win many more.
Furyk's family is also defined by the golf calendar: When he won his U.S. Open, his wife, Tabitha, was pregnant with their son. On Sunday night Tanner, eight, was heartbroken at his father's collapse, and Furyk, fighting back tears, crouched over him in the locker room, gently stroking his boy's cheek. When the Furyk family—including Caleigh, 10—finally emerged from the clubhouse, an eerie fog was shrouding the grounds. His family walked ahead to a distant parking lot, but Furyk stopped next to the practice putting green to reflect on the wrenching events of the day. At 42, he knows a precious opportunity had been lost. "I have only myself to blame," he said in a subdued voice. "I didn't hit the shots I needed to. It definitely stings." Head down, hands in his pockets, Furyk trudged into the night. He was quickly swallowed up by the mist.