SAN FRANCISCO – Turns out The Olympic Club did deliver another Simpson, although it seems likely history will remember this version, both the champion and the championship, more favorably.
A week that began with plenty of style by way of the uber-grouping of Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson on Thursday and Friday, came to a dramatic conclusion with Webb Simpson, Jim Furyk and Graeme McDowell delivering the substance.
For the record, Olympic remains a perfect 5-for-5 for 54-hole leaders. That’s to say, none have gone on to win any of the five Opens played on the NorCal gem, a run that includes the 1987 championship won by Scott Simpson.
But in a dramatic break from tradition this time it was not an obscure contender who emerged to upset the favorite. This time the last man standing was not the last one everyone thought would win.
After beginning the final round 30 minutes ahead and four strokes adrift of co-leaders Furyk and Graeme McDowell, Webb Simpson made his move early with three consecutive birdies beginning at the sixth, failed to birdie either of Olympic’s par 5s and scrambled for an all-world par at the last to cap a 68-68 weekend and take the clubhouse lead at 1 over.
It was a quintessential Open finish. The kind of performance one would expect from the likes of Furyk, whose victory in 2003 is the highlight of a career at the national championship that features just two missed cuts in 18 starts.
Earlier in the week, McDowell caused a minor stir when he referred to Furyk as a plodder, and for 15 holes Sunday Furyk was at his blue-collar best.
Furyk rattled off five consecutive pars to start his day before his first miscue at the sixth hole, and rebounded with six more pars, including a stretch of three consecutive tap-ins starting at the eighth to maintain a 1-up lead on Simpson. Open Golf 101.
But the Open specialist succumbed to Olympic, which had been seasoned to bouncy perfection by consecutive warm days and the U.S. Golf Association’s aversion to watering.
At the 12th, Furyk needed a 35-footer to save par. His tee shot then nestled into the deep rough short of the green at the 13th hole and he made bogey to drop into a tie with Simpson. It will be the par-5 16th hole, however, that ultimately cost Furyk his second Open title.
Needing a birdie on one of the last three holes to avoid a playoff, Furyk pulled his tee shot badly into the trees left of the fairway, needed five shots to reach the putting surface and never recovered.
“I was tied for the lead, sitting on the 16th tee … I got wedges in my hand or reachable par 5s in my hand on the way in and one birdie wins the golf tournament,” said Furyk, who closed with a 74 after an unsightly bogey at the last to tie for fourth. “I'm definitely frustrated.”
The same could have been said of Simpson had he not ended up with the silver chalice. Tied with Furyk through 15 holes, he failed to birdie either par 5 and ended up in the worst possible position when his approach at the last sailed wide of the green.
From the kind of lie major championships go to die, Simpson delicately chipped 4 feet below the hole and calmly, or so it seemed, rolled in the winner.
“Probably, one out of five at best (to get the ball up and down at the 18th),” said Simpson’s caddie Paul Tesori. “It was the worst lie I’ve ever seen. You would have called someone cheating if they would have given you that lie in competition. He could have chipped it down the fairway 30 yards. He wouldn’t have gotten another one close in 10 more shots.”
It was a shot Simpson and Tesori began working on this week to combat the high rough and hard greens. It was also the kind of championship that suited Simpson perfectly – an honest test for an honest man.
In his two previous Tour victories Simpson had not been shy crediting his faith, so much so one half expected the North Carolina native to break into a Tim Tebow pose on the 18th green before the award ceremony. But that’s not Webb.
Tesori said he reminded his boss as they played the 17th hole of a Bible verse the two had been using for inspiration all week, an attempt to find calm in the middle of a marine layer storm.
“The back nine was . . . I don't know how Tiger has won 14 of these things, because the pressure. I couldn't feel my legs most of the back nine. It grew my respect for Tiger all the more,” said Simpson, who finished at 1-over 281, a stroke ahead of first-round leader Michael Thompson and McDowell, whose 24-footer for birdie at the last to force another 18 holes slipped past the cup on the left.
“Just thankful to God. I couldn't have done it without Him.”
Simpson also thanked wife Dowd, who walked all 72 holes with him despite being 34 weeks pregnant with the couple's second child, for providing emotional support.
For Woods, who was tied for the lead after two rounds but struggled to a Saturday 75, his week on the Lake Course was also a question of faith.
Although he played his first six holes on Sunday in 6 over, Woods recovered to play his last 12 in 3 under for a 73 that left him tied for 21st at 7 over. The wait for major No. 15 continues.
“Hit the ball really well. Unfortunately I just didn't have the speed of the greens until today,” Woods said. “The way I struck the golf ball, the way I controlled it all week is something that's very positive going forward and if I would have just hung in there a little bit better yesterday and missed it on the correct side a couple times then I would have been in a better position going into today.”
Mickelson didn’t seem as upbeat following his week that ended with an 8-over 78 and a tie for 65th, his worst finish at the national championship since 1996. At least he was around for the weekend; the same could not be said for world No. 1 Luke Donald and defending champion Rory McIlroy, who has now missed four cuts in his last five starts.
Things may have been even harder on Lee Westwood, who lost his golf ball in a tree right of the fifth fairway and never recovered for another major miss.
But that was a common theme at The Olympic Club. After last year’s record scoring at Congressional, this Open was about heartbreak and holding on. Call it a return to the norm.
“Not sure if guys can have their ‘A games’ to be honest, the course just won’t allow it,” McDowell said. “Today was a grind. It was a slog.”
A slog won by a grinder, just the way the USGA likes it.