The former U.S. Open champion began his week with a 6-under 64 on the South Course, taking a one-shot advantage over an elite field despite his relative inexperience at a venue where many of the game’s best have played dozens of times.
“In 2011, I was 51st in the world and didn’t get in, and last year our daughter Willow was born,” Simpson explained after the round. “So it was a nice entry round for me into this golf tournament.”
The wait certainly paid off for Simpson, who led the field Thursday with eight birdies. Though he reached only 11 of 18 greens in regulation, the 28-year-old made the most of his opportunities on the putting surfaces.
“The course is beautiful. The greens are rolling great,” noted Simpson, who took just 22 putts in his opening round. “Today was one of those days where I just saw the lines well, and my speed was really good … They were just going in the middle.”
Having been ranked inside the top 50 in the world for nearly the past two years, there are not many regular PGA Tour venues upon which Simpson does not have at least some experience. Such is the case this week in Akron, though, as the current world No. 23 admitted to having only seen a few holes of the South Course on television before arriving at the grounds this week. Luckily for Simpson, his caddie Paul Tesori was able to compensate for his player’s lack of course knowledge.
“My caddie has been here so many years. I think he’s been here every year he’s been a caddie except the last two. I just kind of had to listen to him,” Simpson said of Tesori. “I haven’t listened to him this much since we got together in 2011.”
This week’s event in Akron could provide the former Wake Forest standout with a chance to turn around what has been a somewhat pedantic season thus far. Though he counts a runner-up finish to Graeme McDowell at the RBC Heritage among his four top-10 finishes this year, Simpson missed the cut at the Masters, struggled over the weekend at the British Open and has yet to win since his breakthrough victory last year at the U.S. Open.
“Encouraging and frustrating,” Simpson shared when asked to describe his 2013 campaign to date. “There’s been a few tournaments that looked like they were going well and I just didn’t close well, or a couple other tournaments I didn’t start out well and then I finished well.
“So I’m not really putting four rounds together as well as I have in the past,” he added.
Like many in this week’s field, Simpson is hoping for a strong week to help create a spark heading into an arduous portion of the golf calendar. With plans to return to Greensboro for the Wyndham Championship later this month, where he recorded his first PGA Tour win in 2011, Simpson is now on the first leg of a stretch that will see him play five straight events in five weeks through the Deutsche Bank Championship.
“I think the most important golf rounds for the year are ahead of us,” explained Simpson, who currently sits 17th in the FedEx Cup standings. “Our whole season is riding on these last eight or nine events.”
Though he remains focused on this event specifically and the FedEx Cup race in general, Simpson also has his eye on another set of standings. Currently eighth on the list for the U.S. Presidents Cup squad, he noted after Thursday’s round that a potential spot on captain Fred Couples’ team in October is something he considers a priority.
“I’m so excited about the possibility of making the team again,” said Simpson, who went 3-2 in the 2011 matches at Royal Melbourne, joining forces with Bubba Watson in each of the first four rounds of match play. “Bill Haas and I were in the practice round yesterday and we were talking about it. No matter who you are, maybe minus Matt (Kuchar), Brandt (Snedeker), Tiger (Woods) and Phil (Mickelson), you’ve got to keep playing well.
“That’s the attitude you’ve got to have,” he added. “Because if you relax and think you’re in, guys at 14, 15 (in the standings), they win this week … they’re going to jump ahead of everybody.”
As he gets set for what will now be just his second competitive round at Firestone Friday afternoon, Simpson remains optimistic that his scores will start to reflect the progress he believes his game is making. With his name currently atop a world-class leaderboard in Akron, there’s reason to believe him.
“If I’m getting better, I’m happy. And I do feel like I’m getting better,” he added. “I just don’t have the results this year to show it.”