It was his to lose.
Despite what Webb Simpson said Friday after his course record tying round of 63 — which was that no lead was safe — it was virtually impossible for anyone to catch him on Sunday. He had history on his side.
But Simpson had more than a victory on Sunday, he overcame a rules change that damaged his career in his prime earning years. The putting style he had used to win the U.S. Open in 2012 was banned by the R&A and the USGA in 2016. It was not a pleasant time for him.
Simpson tried conventional putting, but finally settled on a style preferred by Matt Kuchar and allowed by the USGA.
However, it was a tip from Tim Clark — who is now out of golf, some say due to injury and some say due to the ban of the anchored putter — that turned his game around 12 months ago.
“He [Clark] asked me had I ever tried the claw grip, and I said no,” Simpson explained earlier in the week. “It felt pretty awkward.”
Before the first round of THE PLAYERS in 2017, Simpson’s caddie, Nocatee resident Paul Tesori, asked him if he was going to use the claw.
“I said, ‘I still don't know,’” Simpson recalled. “But I warmed up with it, and it felt pretty good, and last year, especially the first two days, was the best I had putted in a long time.”
He had a year of practice before creating a seven shot lead going into the final round of THE PLAYERS. Historically, that was insurmountable. In all the rounds that have been played on the PGA Tour, no one has ever lost a seven-shot lead.
The only question that remained was would he break Greg Norman’s 1994 scoring record of 24-under par for the tournament? It would have been a fitting way to celebrate the last time THE PLAYERS was held in May.
The rest of the field
Galleries were lined up five to 25 and more deep, depending on whether there was a viewing mound. At the start, you could see between a quarter and a half-mile of fans stretching from the practice area to the first green. It wasn’t possible to see that until the course was redone so that there are broad expanses of grass and less structures. More like Augusta National, if you have been there. (I’m sure that’s the plan.)
Rising above those lines of fans were even more people packing the left side of the second hole and the left side of the third hole, the first par three, where you can watch the tee and the green without moving. Many were waiting for Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth to make a charge.
A group of guys said they were Spieth fans because they were the same age. One of them admitted to being jealous. A man and woman from Argentina were visiting for the first time, and they were excited to see both golfers. Only one spoke English.
There was barely a ripple of wind, and the sky was a pale, golf-pant gray, comfortable for playing and watching.
As the afternoon progressed, Tiger Woods was one of a handful who delivered a charge. Playing four groups ahead of Simpson, he moved early, with birdies at the third, fourth and fifth. He saved par at the eighth by hitting an explosion out of a greenside bunker and banking the ball off the slope on the right side of the green. It rolled to within three feet.
He birdied No. 9 from the swale right on the green and turned in 32. He would have to go much lower on the back side to scare Simpson into making mistakes.
There were five 32s on the front, and one of them belonged to Woods. Kiradech Aphibarnrat posted a 30.
Meanwhile, Simpson wasn’t giving up anything. He was steady through the first six. He birdied the seventh and bogeyed the eighth. When he turned in even par, it looked like Norman’s 24-under score would remain the lowest ever.
Simpson would have had to shoot 6-under in the final round to break the tournament record, and he was content with pars. He was safely ahead, and that was all he wanted.
“Odds of him losing this are one in 20,” Johnny Miller said about Simpson.
Woods birdied the 11th and 12th, but when he bogeyed the 14th, it seemed finished for him. He had climbed to within five shots of the lead, but with the bogey, mojo had moved on. At that time, he was five shots back with five holes to play.
Simpson remained stuck on 19-under, refusing to budge for Woods or anyone else.
The only way anyone other than Simpson could win, was if Simpson started making bogeys and doubles, which he refused to do.
When Woods drove into the right rough on the 16th, his chances were completely gone, and then things got worse for him. The 17th. Water.
At that juncture, there were about 12 players left on the golf course. None of them pressed Simpson. In all, it was amazing that so few golfers were able to mount a serious charge against Simpson after Friday, but the course is not user friendly.
Webb Simpson actually won the tournament on Friday and Saturday. His lead stymied the rest. He could only fire and fall back like ping pong balls thrown against a wall.
“I think he demoralized the field,” Miller said as Simpson walked to the 17th green.
For Simpson, THE PLAYERS victory came nearly six years after his U.S. Open title, and some will say it’s his second major. However, more importantly for him, it was an extraordinary career comeback for someone who had previously been at the pinnacle of the game and then, due to the whims of the R&A and USGA, fallen victim to a change in rules on equipment and method of play.
Simpson overcame more than past putting problems this week. He overcame two golf organizations that had conspired against him to ruin his career. With the drop of the final putt, plenty of middle-aged men gave loud cheers from their sofas and bar stools saying, “Take that, ruling bodies.” Then they went out to the garage to find their old long putters to start practicing with the claw.