ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. – At East Lake it was $10 million that haunted Webb Simpson, an amount so inconceivable that his initial thought on what to do with such riches was to buy more diapers. This week at Sea Island Resort it is $69,000 that is shadowing the third-year PGA Tour player.
That’s how much separates Simpson from Luke Donald, the English machine who turned the Tour into his personal ATM machine this year with 13 top-10 showings that propelled him atop the money list with $5.837 million.
The cash crown comes with a five-year Tour exemption and, more importantly to Simpson, a spot in the circuit’s history books.
“I was talking to my wife about it, if you win the money list, you're probably added to a list of maybe 50 guys. So it would be a pretty prestigious list to be a part of,” he said on Wednesday.
On Thursday the would-be king raced out to an opening 63 and the first-round lead at the McGladrey Classic, an impressive feat of competitive focus and compartmentalization considering Simpson’s primary motivations.
Following four rounds at East Lake Simpson was toast. Six tournaments in six weeks – not to mention two victories along the way – and the weight of the FedEx Cup’s riches took a toll on his normally machine-like game. He carded rounds of 69-70-70-73 and finished second on the season-ending points list.
At the time he was exhausted and said he was unsure if he would play another official event in 2011, but two weeks of R&R and the prospect of the money title pushed Simpson off the couch and back into the fray.
“As soon as what happened at the Tour Championship happened, I kind of, in the back of my head, said I’m going to play one or two (Fall Series events),” said Simpson, who adjusted his off-season schedule to make room for the McGladrey.
On paper, a top-15 finish at Sea Island, the minimum paycheck he would need to slip past Donald, is low-hanging fruit for a player that’s managed to post in 15th place or better in 14 of his 24 outings this year.
But that kind of competitive complacency almost always delivers disappointment. Just ask anyone who has faced a two-putt from 25 feet at the last hole for victory. In golf there is no prevent defense.
So Simpson set out on Thursday with money on his mind. He’s not going to attempt to sugarcoat it or trick himself into thinking that it is “just another event.”
“When guys say they block it out, I mean, I don’t,” he said. There’s no way I can go play this golf tournament without thinking about the money title. I’m thinking about it every day. But I’m not over every shot thinking this is the money title. It’s more I’m just trying my best to get focused on winning.”
Not exactly one shot at a time.
Simpson’s level of acceptance is something of a new trend on Tour with various sports psychologist stressing the need to embrace the pressure, not hide from it.
“It’s not a problem to have result thoughts,” said Dr. Morris Pickens, whose Tour stable includes Zach Johnson, Nick Watney and Stewart Cink. “The problem is finding a way to get back into your routine afterward. If you don’t know where to go after having results thoughts then you’re in trouble.”
A victory this week would likely lock up the money title for Simpson. It’s not a foregone conclusion only because various sources have indicated Donald, who suggested at the Tour Championship that he was done with the Tour this season, will play Disney, creating an entirely unexpected cash clash at the finale.
If Donald, who is trying to lock up both the PGA Tour and European Tour money titles, commits to Disney it seems certain Simpson would join him at the Magic Kingdom for a money title shootout as well as an opportunity to collect some much-needed Player of the Year style points.
Ballots for the Player of the Year vote go out to Tour members in late October and will be due in mid-December, which means a potential transatlantic earnings double for Donald could influence the voting.
Simpson, however, seems fixated on making the Player of the Year decision as clouded as the current race for the Republican presidential nomination. And he’s doing so honestly, without gimmicks or misplaced priorities.
He’s playing for the money title, he’s playing for $69,000. Lessons learned from East Lake, no doubt.