SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – In an age of eye-popping drives where the perpetual notion remains that longer is better, a guy like Webb Simpson shouldn’t exist.
It shouldn’t be possible for a player in his mid-30s, who currently ranks 160th on Tour in driving distance, to contend on a weekly basis. The guy that hits it 291 yards on average isn’t supposed to be able to hang in overtime against a player who launched his drive 366 yards on the 72nd hole. He’s supposed to be one of the guys getting squeezed out to make room for all the young guns who fly it 310 off the tee with a flick of the wrist and have 7-irons into par-5 greens.
But there are no pictures on the scorecards out here, and Simpson proved that point in a big way Sunday by playing small ball en route to a playoff victory over Tony Finau at the Waste Management Phoenix Open that marks his first win in more than 18 months.
Down two shots with two holes to play, Simpson drove the green on the short par-4 17th, then buried an 18-footer for birdie on the last hole of regulation. Then, having finished second four times since June, he threw the monkey off his back in dramatic fashion by stuffing a lob wedge to 10 feet and closing out Finau in style.
“It’s been a long year and a half since The Players, which is a long time,” Simpson said. “But it feels great.”
At age 34, Simpson hasn’t thumbed his nose at the growing distance trend. Instead, he’s been careful and calculated, refining his body and picking up yardage in small increments while maintaining a focus on the other aspects of his game that make him a world-class player.
“I used to call him a skinny fat kid. And now he’s ripped, he’s stronger, more flexible,” said caddie Paul Tesori. “It doesn’t look like it because he’ll never be able to do what they can do, but in his own way, he has worked as hard as he could.”
Some of Simpson’s strategic thinking also applies to where he tees it up. He noted that the flexibility top Tour pros enjoy while plotting their schedule is an aspect he’s sought to maximize, eschewing venues that reward the long ball while favoring layouts that place more value on precision. TPC Scottsdale is one such venue, a par-71 track that emphasizes work on and around the greens far more than distance off the tee. The former is where Simpson tends to shine, and he did so again this week while ranking third in fairways hit and fourth in strokes gained: approach.
“I think for me, not hitting it that far but playing well the last couple years is a lot about being smart about where I’m playing,” Simpson said. “I don’t mind playing longer tracks, but it’s just harder to win.”
Sunday’s win continues a renaissance for the former U.S. Open champ, who had nearly tumbled out of the top 100 in the world rankings in 2016 as he sought to adjust to life post-anchoring. But now with a watershed victory to highlight a remarkable eight-month stretch, he’s back inside the top 10 in the world rankings for the first time since 2012 and comparing his current game favorably to the one that earned him major glory at Olympic.
“A couple years ago, I was just a little bit tired of being inconsistent, and I wanted to be a more consistent player. I started looking at my weaknesses and really learning from golf tournaments, whether I finished second or 30th or missed the cut,” Simpson said. “So I do feel just more well-rounded now.”
A long string of close calls and runner-up finishes, the likes of which Simpson has endured since June, might have frayed the nerves of a less-experienced player. But the veteran applied some of the wisdom he’s learned along the years, noting that there’s not much you can do when Rory McIlroy shoots a 61 as happened at the RBC Canadian Open, or when J.T. Poston goes bogey-free for 72 holes as occurred in Greensboro.
But staying true to his roots and seeking incremental changes rather than a dramatic overhaul, Simpson has steadily kept the bombers within arm’s reach. And Sunday, he flashed just enough magic down the stretch to turn his near-misses into a dearly-sought win.
“He’s played great in every one of those runner-ups and misses. He’s played great every time, just one person keeps beating him,” Tesori said. “And this time, he was the one guy that barely beat Tony.”