Debbie Simpson will celebrate Mother’s Day with an empty chair at her dining room table and her son’s handsome face on her flat screen. She knew a win by Webb at The Players wouldn’t bring her husband, Sam, back, but it would seem heaven-sent considering Sam’s passing last November from Lewy Body Dementia and Webb’s resurrection on the greens of TPC Sawgrass.
“My daughter Chase told all of her friends on Friday that was best birthday present her mother could have,” Debbie Simpson said Saturday night from her home in Raleigh, N.C. “He shot my age.”
Webb's 63 tied the course record at the Stadium Course and turned this version of The Players into a one-man tournament, but there was still worry in Debbie's voice when her son stepped to the 17th tee near the close of the third round, holding a six-stroke lead.
Webb’s career looked like it was in critical condition two years ago, when the USGA-R&A anchor ban took effect. In an act of defiance, he took his putter, snapped it over his knee in the garage, and placed it in his trophy case next to the 2012 U.S. Open trophy and a hat left behind by the infamous Jungle Bird after he photo-bombed the trophy presentation at The Olympic Club.
“My dad instilled in me a fighter’s mentality,” Webb told me after his opening-round 66 for a share of The Players lead. “I was never gonna quit, but I didn’t like the thought of playing the rest of my career like I was.”
Ranked 177th in strokes gained: putting, and dropping from fifth in the world to 95th, Simpson’s problem on the greens seemed inoperable until an impromptu meeting with 2010 Players champion Tim Clark on the practice green at TPC Sawgrass last May.
Asked where he would be without Clark’s putting lesson, Simpson was quick to answer. “I don’t know," he said. "I don’t know. So I’m really thankful that he was here that day, and thought to himself he should say something. It wasn’t going in a good direction.”
Taking Clark's suggestion that he try a hybrid grip called the “Kuchar Claw,” Simpson came to Ponte Vedra Beach a year later ranked 10th in strokes gained: putting and 36th in FedExCup points with four top-10s.
But that meant nothing at 6:40 p.m. ET Saturday when Webb stepped to the 17th tee having come off par on the par-5 16th. On Friday he had hit his tee shot off the front bulkhead, from where it took a huge bounce and ended up in the water. The double bogey was his first dropped shot in 30 holes.
Saturday night was a payback, with Simpson hitting a shot that released to 3 feet for a birdie.
“Oh my gosh, I can breathe now.” Debbie said when I called her. “I thought it was going in the hole! My throat is so sore from yelling. I did a dance and kissed him on the screen.”
There was another trial for his mother to go through before she called it a night. On 18, Webb’s approach shot landed in a greenside bunker, and his sand wedge left him 17 ½ feet for par — which he made, of course, just like all the other putts he made over the course of three days.
“You know, being Mother’s Day and seeing what she’s gone through, this would be an amazing Mother’s Day present for her,” he said. “But 18 holes. I’ve still got 18 holes to go.”