By Ron Green Jr. of Global Golf Post
For Webb Simpson, making the first three rounds look easy at the Players Championship made finishing it off the hard part.
The beauty in Simpson’s four-stroke victory on the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass was painted in the first three rounds when he built a seven-stroke lead, allowing him to spend Sunday polishing off a title that will sit nicely alongside the 2012 U.S. Open win in his career résumé.
In a final round that called for substance ahead of style and sizzle, Simpson delivered a no-frills performance that gradually beat back any potential challengers who never got the help they needed from the 32-year-old from Raleigh, N.C. He had the luxury of making a double bogey on the finishing hole and still walking away smiling.
Simpson had rounds of 66-63-68-73 to finish at 18-under-par 270, four ahead of Jimmy Walker, Xander Schauffele, and Charl Schwartzel.
Simpson’s challenge on Sunday was keeping his focus forward. No player in PGA Tour history had failed to win after taking at least a seven-stroke lead into the final round and Simpson never came close to being the first.
golf being the quirky game it is, Simpson understood the possibilities both good and bad. Last fall, Dustin Johnson – then the No.1 player in the world – took a six-stroke lead into the final round of the WGC-HSBC Champions in China and Justin Rose left with the trophy.
Alex Čejka led this tournament by five strokes starting Sunday in 2009 and barely finished inside the top 10. There was no such drama with Simpson.
“It was harder than I thought,” Simpson said. “There was so much noise going on in front of me with what Tiger (Woods) was doing. I was wondering what everyone was doing.”
By the time Simpson teed off Sunday, Brooks Koepka already had tied the course record Simpson likewise had equaled on Friday with a 9-under-par 63 and Kiradech Aphibarnrat had played his first 13 holes in 8-under par, screaming indications of the potential for low scores and the forced awareness of not getting run down from behind.
It never happened.
“When we all teed off today I thought barring something disastrous happening for Webb I think we all were trying to play for second place,” Walker said. “So I think mission accomplished for me and the other guys, too, that did it.
“You don’t want to wish bad on anybody, especially Webb. He’s a great guy, he really is. You just want to go out and try to put some pressure on him. So we tried to get it going, tried to get it going, but it’s a hard golf course to really kind of – there’s just so much trouble and so many things can happen and great playing by Webb today. It’s awesome.”
Simpson looked edgy early, missing two of the first three greens while playing partner Danny Lee was making two birdies to carve into his advantage. It wasn’t until the difficult par-4 seventh that Simpson made his first birdie, fist-pumping his 32-foot putt into the hole before it got there.
After a hard lip-out resulted in a bogey at the eighth, Simpson pieced together a par at the ninth though it looked as if he did it with spare parts, finally holing a 6-footer to take a five-stroke lead to the back nine.
Only briefly did Simpson’s lead shrink to four strokes but not for long. When Simpson birdied the par-5 11th hole, he felt fully in control.
“I just kind of managed the middle part of the round, just playing smart,” Simpson said. “But you don’t really feel relaxed until the ball finds land on the 17th green.”
He grabbed this championship by the throat with his second-round, record-tying 63 that included a double bogey at the famous par-3 17th hole. Simpson needed just 19 putts through his first 16 holes in the second round, which helps explain how he was 11-under par for the day when he reached the 17th.
It changed the tournament, tilting it irrevocably in Simpson’s favor.
If the margin and dominance were surprising, Simpson winning his first Tour title since 2013 shouldn’t have been entirely unexpected. He had quietly put together a solid season leading into the Players Championship.
He finished T4 at the Sony Open in Hawaii, T5 at the Honda Classic, T8 at the Valspar Championship and T5 at the RBC Heritage.
A year ago at this event, 2010 Players champion Tim Clark suggested Simpson, who had used a long putter before the 2016 anchoring ban, adjust his putting grip, adopting a claw style, and it was transformative.
“I think golf as a whole and sports as a whole, confidence is so big, and it can change the way you think. And I think even more so maybe with putting,” Simpson said. “Putting there’s read, there’s grain, there’s speed, and then there’s you. There’s the stroke, the aimer … Even with the short putter, I had tournaments where I putted well, but I never had stretches three months, six months, eight months where consistently I was a lot better.
“So I think once that kind of four, five, six months of good putting hit, I started to believe again that I’m a good putter. It had been a long time since I had really felt that and believed it”
In its last staging in May, this Players Championship began with the attention focused on the so-called supergroups playing together the first two days. Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, and Rickie Fowler were together as were Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, and Rory McIlroy.
How did that work out?
The galleries loved it but it was a mixed bag for the player. Three of them made the cut – Woods, Spieth, and Thomas – and the other three did not.
Driver: Titleist 917D2 (9.5 degrees)
Shaft: Graphite Design Tour AD IZ-5X
3 Wood: TaylorMade M2 (15 degrees)
Shaft: Mitsubishi Tensei Blue CK 70TX
5 Wood: Titleist 913Fd (18 degrees)
Shaft: UST Mamiya Proforce VTS 8TX
Hybrid: Titleist 913Hd (20 degrees)
Shaft: Graphite Design Tour AD-DI 105X Hybrid
Hybrid: Titleist 915Hd (23.5 degrees)
Shaft: True Temper Dynamic Gold Tour Issue X100
Irons: Titleist 718 MB (5-PW)
Shafts: True Temper Dynamic Gold Tour Issue X100
Wedges: Titleist Vokey SM7 (54-14F, 60-06K)
Shafts: True Temper Dynamic Gold Tour Issue S400
Putter: Odyssey Tank Cruiser V-Line
Grip: Odyssey Arm Lock
Golf Ball: Titleist Pro V1
Grips: Golf Pride Tour Velvet 58R
Republished with permission from Global Golf Post.