By David Droschak
Two wins, both groundbreaking in the PGA Tour career of one James Frederick Webb Simpson. But in terms of confidence, what a difference a year makes.
Last August at Sedgefield Country Club, the former Wake Forest University All-American was grinding on Tour, and in his own words, “pressing” for that initial victory. “I had come close a few times so there was that question of whether I was going to be able to win, or could I win,” Simpson said.
Not only did Simpson capture his first Tour victory at the Wyndham Championship in his home state, he was second on the money list in 2011 after finishing 70th and 94th his previous two seasons – and went into this year as one of the game’s rising stars.
Simpson’s game and status in professional golf reached another level in June when he captured the U.S. Open with a pair of closing 68s, and returns to Greensboro as a major champion and major draw for the Triad’s tour stop.
“Driving home from the Wyndham (last year) it was more of a relief that I won,” Simpson said. “Coming home from the U.S. Open it was more exciting — and a shocker.”
Exciting indeed; with congratulatory e-mails or text messages coming from the likes of Tom Watson, Greg Norman, Hale Irwin, Phil Mickelson and many others. But few players, or people for that matter, are as grounded as Simpson, who balances the intense competition of professional golf with family, friends and his deep religious faith.
Talk to Simpson for five minutes and you quickly realize he’s a rare breed of athlete, one with intelligent answers, a guy who looks you in the eye and believes golf is just a part of his life, not THE driving force.
Prior to the U.S. Open, Simpson worked hard for a few days, then headed to Pinehurst (where his parents have had a second home for years), not necessarily to golf or fine tune his game, but for some fellowship with friends.
“As golfers, we can become so robotic trying to be as prepared as possible,” he said. “That in itself creates expectations that maybe beyond what we’re capable of doing, so for me to get with my buddies and get my mind away from golf and get my mind away from the U.S. Open was the best thing I could have done. We had tons of laughs and we grilled out every night. I basically showed up to the U.S. Open more refreshed and rested than most people.”
Grilling out prior to the Open one weekend, then what has now become his customary celebration dinner after a win – a double cheeseburger meal at Wendy’s – on the tail end of his first major victory.
On the way to the airport in San Francisco, Simpson and his wife stopped at the fast food chain to eat – and with it came a few more laughs.
“We walked in and there were some guys in there that had been to the Open that day. They didn’t think it was really me,” Simpson said. “I overheard them; they were getting into an argument. They finally figured out that it was me and they wanted to take a picture, so it was pretty funny.”
The Early Years
Simpson never lacked talent on the links and soon became an accomplished junior golfer and a state champion at Broughton High School in Raleigh. And while he was in the golfing spotlight as a teen-ager, Simpson doesn’t seek the limelight, or necessarily like all the attention he has been getting lately.
Simpson fit in nicely at Broughton since he attended the school at the same time as Duke basketball recruit Shavlik Randolph and tennis star Ally Baker.
“Broughton is one of the most unique schools in the country in that it’s a public school but in a way feels like a private school, just the programs there and the opportunities for athletes,” Simpson said. “Pretty much every sport there was an all-star athlete. Had I been in a small school or a different school I would have been in the spotlight more, so to kind of blend in with those guys was great.”
As a 14-year-old, Simpson carried the scoring standard in the 1999 U.S. Open at Pinehurst for a group that included Hall of Famer Watson, and as the nation’s No. 1-ranked high school senior, was recruited by the top major college programs. That group included Wake Forest and coach Jerry Haas, who himself was a professional golfer and comes from a great family of golfers.
Haas still remembers the first time he saw Simpson in competition as a teen during an event at Keith Hills Country Club.
“He hit a shot into a bunker and it was kind of up against the lip and he had to aim to the left to make the ball go to the right,” Haas said. “I was like, ‘I wonder if he’s going to be able to do this?’ He looked at it and aimed way left, opened the face, and the ball squirted out and rolled up about two feet away from the hole. I said, ‘That’s my boy right there, that’s the kid I want.’ I could tell he had just an unbelievable imagination and didn’t panic or worry about difficult situations.”
Once at Wake Forest, Simpson was good, but didn’t stand out much on a talented team before capturing the ACC individual crown as a senior in 2008 with a record-setting 14-under-par score.
“He was raw when he came to college,” Haas said. “Fundamentally, he was all over the place with his swing. But I could tell this kid had ability and a knack to get the ball into the hole. He would shoot some scores in junior golf that I would be amazed at. He somehow found a way to get the most out of every round. There are certain guys who just have an ability to turn a 5 into a 4 or a 4 into a 3. Those are the ones that usually end up being fantastic players.
“And Webb was always a young man who had a purpose in life, and knew exactly what he wanted to do and where he wanted to go. I can still remember the day I called up his father Sam and told him, ‘He’s going to make it; he’s going to be a star.’ If you look at Webb’s records he never played fantastic in the (NCAA) postseason, for whatever reason, but I could see him getting better and better. I would like to think I helped Webb a little but I certainly defer to the player. You can have good support around you and that’s important, but at the end of the day Webb is the one who pulls the trigger and hits the shots. You are out there on your own little island in golf and there are a not a lot of things people can do for you when it’s going bad or good.”
Haas walked alongside Simpson when he shot a 59 during an NCAA postseason practice round and watched intently as his former star closed in on the U.S. Open crown.
“Webb is the most honest player I’ve ever coached,” Haas said. “What I mean by that is he never, ever since I’ve known him had an excuse. If he toed one, or heeled one or if you told him it was a right edge putt and he started it out to the right he wouldn’t look at you and say it was a bad read. He would say, ‘That was a terrible putt coach, I started that out way too far to the right.’
An Open Book
Simpson was playing several groups in front of the third-round leaders at the Open and methodically marched into contention during the back nine at Olympic Club, drawing on lessons he garnered during his 2011 Wyndham Championship final round. He and caddy Paul Tesori prepared for the nerves, the jitters, pressure – none of which ever materialized.
“Paul later told me he was ready to give me THE talk,” Simpson said. “You know, you need to slow down or let’s talk about basketball, but he said, ‘You looked calm so I never had to.’ That was a big compliment coming from him since it was his 11th Open.”
And, of course for Simpson, there was a Bible verse from Corinthians throughout the Open week to “keep me calm.”
“It was such a cool experience because you’re thinking in your mind that these are the best players in the world on golf’s toughest test and you have a chance to win this thing,” he said. ”It was my first time in contention in a major so I’m still learning as I go, things about my body, things about myself.”
Haas believes Simpson has already learned and digested one of the most important points of life.
“For him, it goes back to just one thing: Are you comfortable in your own skin? Are you comfortable in who you are? As a golfer, you are out there playing and no one really cares how you play other than a few people. They all hope you shoot 80. He is out there on his own each and every day, putting it on the line. You can’t be afraid to shank it in front of people; you can’t be embarrassed about a bad shot. Webb has shanked shots before on the range, but he gets passed it. To me he’s very, very comfortable who he is as a person, as a man, as a father, as a friend, as a golfer.”
“Winning the U.S. Open is a memory I’ll never forget, but ultimately I already have peace in my heart, so win or lose it wasn’t going to change my life in terms of what’s in my heart personally,” Simpson said. “I felt totally weak on that back nine. It served for great conversation between Paul and myself to get our minds off the golf and on to our faith and our family. That was the secret to making that last putt. I was thinking of my little boy and just playing with him when I got home. That was the only thing I could think of to get my mind off what it might mean to win.”
Returning to Greensboro
Longtime Wyndham Championship tournament director Mark Brazil said ticket sales for the tournament, scheduled for Aug. 13-19, spiked immediately after Simpson’s major victory.
“We never had that kind of activity two months out from our tournament, and not only in ticket sales but in sponsorship activity,” Brazil said.
Brazil twice extended Simpson exemptions to the PGA Tour event while he was playing college golf at Wake Forest, but both times Simpson had conflicts and couldn’t play.
“This sure puts some more energy into our tournament,” Brazil said. “Recently we’ve seen some stronger fields here, but we don’t typically get players ranked No. 5 in the world. And for me personally I have a very strong sense of pride, kind of like Webb is a younger brother to me. It’s a big deal.”
Simpson will come into the Wyndham Championship fresh. He skipped the British Open and took several weeks off to be with his wife during the birth of the couple’s second child.
“In terms of the spotlight there is a new major champion and a little element of that is good to get it off of me for a little while,” Simpson said. “I’m trying to enjoy the Open win but at the same time remain focused.”
Simpson will be tugged in every direction once the Wyndham Championship week begins, in a way feeling like a mini Tiger Woods for a few days. He says he’ll be gracious before getting down to business trying to defend his title.
“It is a cool week being right before the FedEx Cup playoffs and guys are trying to make a move, and North Carolina fans in general know a lot about golf and are some of the best fans we get in Tour,” he said.
“The attention is a positive all the way around. To know that fans are behind you and supporting you and hearing them clap for you is such a cool and humbling feeling. One of the things I try to do is to make every week as normal as possible. I don’t want to make the Wyndham week that much bigger than another week because all that can do is set me up for a letdown. It certainly is more special than other weeks, but in terms of the competition I will stick to my routine.”
It’s a daily routine that now includes the U.S. Open trophy in plain view.
“It has been on my bathroom sink so I brush my teeth in the morning and night and get to see it. We’ll figure out a good place for it in the house soon,” Simpson laughed. “I looked at the names on the plane ride home. I am just thankful to be a part of that. The replica is really expensive to buy, so we’re going to have to redo our mortgage to buy it.”
“The U.S. Open was a great reward and Webb has made a lot of money at 26 years old, but he’s so deeply grounded in his faith and who he is that I know it will keep him humble — and most of the great champions are humble,” Haas said.
“In today’s world I always talk about the “A’ word and it’s attitude, but my “A” word with Webb is appreciative. I don’t think a lot of young people are as appreciative as they used to be. He is very appreciative of the people around him and the opportunity. He plays like the guy who doesn’t want to lose his game.”