ARDMORE, Pa. – The memories came rushing back to Webb Simpson last weekend as he drove toward Merion, as he saw the USGA banners, as he registered for the 113th U.S. Open.
Nostalgia tends to engulf every defending champion, but especially a first-time winner. Simpson was no exception.
“There hasn’t been a day that went by that I haven’t thought about winning the U.S. Open,” he said Tuesday. “Being announced on the first tee as the U.S. Open champion hasn’t gotten old. I don’t want that to change.”
Only four players in the last 100 years have won back-to-back U.S. Opens, and none since Curtis Strange in 1988-89.
Simpson is a popular sleeper pick this week, not only because of his gritty demeanor and strong ball-striking, but also because he’s one of only 11 players in the 156-man field who have played a competitive round on the East Course. His first spin around Merion came in November 2004, when the then-19-year-old was joined by his father and a couple of friends. The weather was miserable that day, so they instead sat in the clubhouse with one of the longtime members, and Simpson, a history buff, listened to stories about the old club, about Hogan’s signature shot on 18.
Less than a year later, Simpson was teeing it up at the ’05 U.S. Amateur at Merion, where he advanced through stroke-play qualifying and lost, 4 and 2, to Anthony Kim – remember him? – in the Round of 32.
Immediately Simpson fell in love with the course, and has since grown only more enamored after a corporate function in September and a recent nine-hole practice round. It reminds him of the track on which he grew up playing, Carolina Country Club in Raleigh, which plays short from the tips and demands strong wedge play.
“What’s interesting here is there’s no 18-hole theme,” he said. “You go through the first 13 holes, and if you drive it appropriately, you can have nine wedge shots. And the last five holes you’ve got to hang on.”
His experience this week at Merion will be markedly different than ’05, and not just because he now plays a bigger, stronger game. When he played nine holes Sunday, Simpson hit two tee shots only a few feet into the rough line that guards the hallway-sized fairways. And he didn’t find the balls.
OK, so the gnarly rough is a departure from ’05, to be sure, but it’s not the most significant change for Simpson, 27. Also different this time will be the first-tee introduction – the 2012 U.S. Open champion, Webb Simpson! – and the way he’s perceived (and received) by fans and observers.
Though unintentional, Simpson’s victory last year at Olympic Club helped crystallize the anchoring debate. Yes, he was only the second player to win a major with the belly putter, but he didn’t just win any major – he won the USGA’s sacred championship. The long putter was doomed the second he was declared the winner.
Eleven months later – and after fellow anchorers Ernie Els and Adam Scott also captured major titles – the governing bodies deemed that style of putting to be illegal, beginning in 2016. How an anchoring winner would be accepted in these times, post-ban, remains to be seen.
At this time last year, before the anchormen lawyered up, that debate only simmered. And the final round at Olympic was the kind of Sunday that has come to define this championship – gloomy, gutsy, the ultimate grindfest.
The week had begun so poorly for Simpson. A day after flying to San Francisco, his wife timidly called and said that their 15-month-old son had just walked for the first time. Webb was crushed. For the first few practice days, he was so grumpy that his caddie, Paul Tesori, thought he was on the verge of being canned.
But on the 72nd hole, and needing an up-and-down from a tricky spot right of the green, he looked to the top of the hill, where wife Dowd, 35 weeks pregnant, was standing. A sense of calm washed over him. And after a nervy chip, he shoved the belly putter in his stomach and brushed in the short par putt.
As the final groups finished, Simpson made his way to the players’ locker room, where for 45 minutes he sat alongside his wife and watched the TV coverage, a camera crew zeroed in on their faces. They passed the time by watching iPhone videos of young James. Ernie Els failed to match Simpson’s 281. So did Jim Furyk and, lastly, Graeme McDowell.
“I remember winning the U.S. Open thinking this is the best, this is the one that I wanted, because it’s my national open,” he said. “It’s the hardest test in golf. I think that just made it all the more special.”
Simpson’s trophy presentation was memorably interrupted by a fan in a Union Jack ski hat who rushed onto the green and was tackled and pushed into a bunker by the USGA’s Mike Davis, demonstrating the kind of technique that would make Ray Lewis beam with pride.
“Enjoy the jail cell, pal!” Simpson roared.
When he is stopped in a restaurant or a mall or a grocery store to talk about the Open, that’s the moment that fans seem to remember most. And that’s OK with Simpson. Naturally, he now owns an official Jungle Bird hat himself.