CROMWELL, Conn. – The U.S. Open champ is hitting balls on the far-left side of the practice range, one perfect swing after another in the 97-degree soup. You’re surprised to see that it’s just Webb Simpson and his caddie – no media troop, no horde – so you approach to shake his hand and congratulate him on the big victory. A couple of pleasantries later, everyone has returned to their regularly scheduled lives.
Not 100 feet away, a fleet of men are holding video cameras, accompanied by several pretty women in bright dresses. Actor Bill Murray is warming up for the Wednesday pro-am at the Travelers Championship, and though his swing isn’t nearly as optically appealing as Simpson’s or the female television reporters, he is commanding all the attention.
You can’t tell people what to care about, especially those in the media. Murray looks like a hobo, as usual, in the floppy hat and un-tucked shirt, but he’s not doing his thing, which is playing to the crowd. When he turns to put a short iron back in his bag, Murray doesn’t acknowledge anyone but the tournament publicist, who directs him toward the practice green en route to the first tee.
The entourage dutifully follows. This is a photo op, albeit a well-worn one – you never know when Murray will break out a little Carl Spackler or submit to the call of hijinks that has defined his persona for well over 30 years. It’s funny how golf is the best-behaved of games but there’s still plenty of room for the class clown.
Of course, it’s all about moving the needle nowadays. Simpson hasn’t done it yet and may never, having won a U.S. Open that was really, really hard to love. Murray, meanwhile, has generated red-zone buzz for decades, living large off a few scenes in “Caddyshack.” If old habits die hard, golf’s old-world mentality will never die at all. The ABC affiliate in Hartford will do its best to make sure of it.
“Of all the young guys out here now, Webb Simpson and Rickie Fowler are the two most capable of handling success,” says Ted Scott, whose lengthy stint as Bubba Watson’s caddie has made him an expert on the maturation process. “Always upbeat, great interaction with the fans, totally accessible. Both are wise beyond their years.”
Still, you can’t tell people what to care about. Like the one-hit wonder who made a career out of that lone stellar song, Murray is just plain famous for better or worse, and in our game, he is an icon. Despite shooting four under on the weekend, despite taming the hardest course fairness could possibly buy, Simpson is, until further notice, the winner of a major championship several others lost.
He won’t drag old ladies into a bunker or swat the heads off flowers while imagining himself as the Masters champ, so Simpson will have to earn his needle-moving wings: one smile, one kid’s autograph, one victory at a time. Fame isn’t the goal, but as golf wanders aimlessly amid the throes of its extended Tiger Woods hangover, it desperately needs new heroes.
Good people who play really well at the right time. From his early days of petulance to fatherhood, the hooked wedge from the pine straw and a green jacket, Bubba found his way. Watson will be the first to tell you, however, that Simpson did all the heavy lifting when the two were paired together at last year’s Presidents Cup, carrying the rookie duo to three victories in four matches.
Not that it matters what you do on the course in this day and age, when all the world’s a stage and crooked public perception is all the rage.