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Mental Patience

Webb Simpson
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LEMONT, Ill. – Take heart, hopeless hackers. Don’t worry, weekend warriors. Calm down, dutiful duffers.

The hottest golfer on the planet, a man whose sweet swing has led to victories in two of his last three PGA Tour starts, is exactly like you.

Webb Simpson gets the shanks.

OK, so maybe his hosel-rockets don’t multiply into an epidemic of diagonal divots and squandered golf balls, but they do happen – and not as infrequently as you may think.

“I probably shank one every other day on the range,” Simpson admitted.

That’s nothing, though. Those shanks are really noticeable when they come during competition. And yes, they do occur. During the opening round of the BMW Championship on Thursday, the FedEx Cup points leader hit one crooked for the second time in the past month.

Of course, this is where the golf games of you, dear Shankapotamous, and Simpson greatly differ. After chopping one at a 45-degree angle on the final hole at Cog Hill that landed in an adjacent hospitality suite, he received a free drop, then drilled his third shot to 10 feet and calmly sank the putt for a routine par on the scorecard.

It concluded a round of 6-under 65 that left him in a share of second place, two strokes off the pace set by Justin Rose. And it continued a recent climb that has seen Simpson ascend to an elite tier and the current odds-on favorite to win the PGA Tour's Player of the Year award.

Four weeks ago, the third-year pro broke through for his first career title in Greensboro; two weeks ago, he matched that feat in Boston. During that span, he’s fired 11 of 12 rounds in the 60s and posted an eye-popping scoring average of 66.33.

Even so, after the round, all talk was about that shank.

“I hit a good drive and I had a perfect number for an 8-iron,” Simpson explained. “You know, today I had a little trouble getting my hips through the ball, so when that happens, the club kind of gets inside and the heel gets to the ball first, and it was just a cold shank to the right. But I laughed right after.  I said, ‘Last time I shanked a ball, I won the golf tournament,’ because I shanked one in Greensboro.”

Perhaps Simpson should serve as a muse for all those who struggle with hitting the ball airborne and straight. At the very least, his reaction should serve as a motto to the club-chuckers and F-bombers who can’t fathom how they hit a ball so poorly.

Shank and laugh.

Then again, another thing that separates Webb from Harvey Hacker is that when he goes sideways, he knows exactly why it happened.

“One of my focuses in my swing is that I try to put as much force as I can on my downswing trying to get my weight through the ball, and a lot of times that club will get a little behind me and that face is open and the heel gets there first,” he said. “I don't get too panicked, especially when I've got a guy, my caddie [Paul Tesori], right there with me to tell me kind of exactly what I did.”

“It shocks other people; it doesn’t shock me,” Tesori said after the round. “It’s just one of those things that happens. It’s kind of at the point now where I can just snicker at it.”

The veteran caddie, who has served on the bags of Vijay Singh and Sean O’Hair, among others, calls Simpson the most mentally tough player with whom he’s ever worked.

“The amazing thing about the kid is that he’s so strong mentally, it doesn’t affect his next shot,” Tesori added. “I don’t know how he does it. If me or you would have hit that, we’d have a hard time pulling the trigger. He steps up to the next one with a free mind and goes ahead and hits it.”

All of which brings up a few questions that aren’t usually asked of a guy in second place on the leaderboard.

Can you hit a shank on demand? “I wouldn’t try.”

If you win this week, will you try hitting one in every tournament for good luck? “Maybe.”

After his round was over and those questions were answered, he was right back on the driving range, working out the kinks in what has become one of the world’s more impressive golf swings. In the midst of flushing iron shot after iron shot, the dreaded shank reared its ugly head once again.

For any other player, it would be cause for concern. For Simpson, it’s merely a brief moment of deficiency in an otherwise ultra-efficient game.

As he says about getting the shanks, “It's a little embarrassing, but...”

His voice trails off, so allow us to finish the sentence: But if he keeps playing like this, he’ll gladly make that sacrifice.