Watson, Simpson take different routes to 66

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CROMWELL, Conn. – Bubba Watson and Webb Simpson are close friends. They enjoy competing with each other on the course; they like spending time together off the course.

They are former Presidents Cup partners, leveraging that bond into a 3-1-0 record together at last year’s edition of the event.

They are the first two major champions of the 2012 season, with Bubba claiming the Masters and Webb taking the U.S. Open – the first major victory for each.

And they played together in the first round of the Travelers Championship on Thursday – alongside reigning PGA Championship winner Keegan Bradley – posting identical totals of 4-under 66 that left them in a 10-way tie for fifth place, two strokes behind leader David Mathis.

“We had a good time,” Simpson said. “A lot of laughs and a lot of birdies.”

The two players are, it appears, completely identical. Except for one little thing: They’re total opposites.

File this one under the category of “more than one way to skin a cat,” as Watson and Simpson employed monumentally different approaches to TPC-River Highlands, reaching the same conclusion on the scorecard at day’s end.

There’s proof in the numbers:

• Watson leads the field in driving distance at 334 yards per poke. Simpson was a mere 51 yards farther back on average.

• Watson ranks near the bottom of the field with a driving accuracy percentage of 35.71. Simpson easily found more fairways, keeping it in the short stuff at a 57.14 percent clip.

• Watson had fewer total putts and fewer putts per green in regulation than his playing partner, but his strokes-gained putting number was 0.828. Simpson was more efficient with his flat stick, claiming 2.697 in the same category.

Golf’s newest Odd Couple even endured much different journeys on the road to the Travelers.

Watson was one of the game’s hottest players over the first four months of the season, with that Masters victory being just one of nine consecutive finishes of 18th or better to start the year. Since then, though, he’s missed the cut in two straight, the latest coming in a disappointing U.S. Open start.

Simpson, meanwhile, is fresh off the greatest moment of his career, surviving The Olympic Club and withstanding his fellow contenders to claim the year’s second major championship.

“There’s a lot of birdies to be made and it’s easy to go from a course like Olympic and come here and kind of shut your mind off and just hit golf shots,” Simpson explained. “But luckily the course played firm. It was playing difficult and they had a lot of tough pins, so I think that kind of played into my advantage.”

Even with that advantage, Simpson was pleased with his overall performance.

“I knew it was going to be a tough round to come out and really focus and put last week behind me,” he said. “But we got off to a good start as a group – two of us [Simpson and Watson] birdied one – and it was just fun playing with those guys. We just kind of fed off each other and just played a good, solid golf round.”

Coming off those two missed cuts, Watson was equally pleased to see his name back on a PGA Tour leaderboard.

“I'm very happy,” he said. “I didn't make any putts the last couple weeks that I missed cuts. Made some putts today, made some key putts today to keep the momentum going. Had a couple loose swings, but all in all it was a good day.”

One of Watson’s loose swings came with a wayward drive on the par-4 10th hole that found the left rough. From 137 yards, though, he extricated himself from trouble, holing the approach for eagle. He also added four birdies in the round, offset by just two bogeys.

“It was just a sand wedge,” he recalled. “Had to fly out about 125 because the ball's been bouncing today. No rain lately, so the ball was bouncing pretty good. And just came out right, and bounced perfect and somehow just trickled in.”

If you didn’t watch the proceedings, you could look at their final scores and placement on the leaderboard and think Watson and Simpson played similar, if not identical, rounds of golf on Thursday.

That couldn’t be further from the truth. No, the truth is, they used different journeys and different strategies to find the same conclusion.

But hey, you know what they say: Opposites attract.