Webb Simpson will tell you, he’s always been a leaderboard watcher.
That’s why when the 26-year-old from Raleigh, North Carolina, began surging up the leaderboard Sunday at the U.S. Open, his caddy Paul Tesori pulled him aside and urged him to focus and, above all, steer clear of any leaderboards.
The next time Simpson checked a leaderboard, it was just after tapping in his final par-putt on the 18th hole at Olympic Club. He was the leader in the clubhouse at one over par.
On a track as deceptive and diabolical as Olympic Club, the assumption going in was a proven champion would earn the U.S. Open title. Webb Simpson was not on anyone’s radar, yet his U.S. Open victory continues a tradition distinct to Olympic Lake Course, of a relative nobody earning one of golf’s highest honors.
Simpson joins Jack Fleck (1955), Billy Casper (1966), Scott Simpson (1987) and Lee Janzen as the winner nobody saw coming.
It was an uphill battle, quite literally, since Day 1 for the 156 players competing in the 112th U.S. Open. Olympic was designed on a massive hill, leaving players impossibly hard golf shots with the ball often above and below their feet. If that weren’t enough, the tiny undulating greens were playing with blistering speed. They may as well have been putting the ball on the highway.
But Webb Simpson, unexpectedly, conquered the beast with poise, saying,"I have no experience in majors or in contention. On the back nine I couldn’t feel my legs. I just kept thinking to myself, 'how did Tiger win 14 of these?'"
No experience is an understatement. This was just Simpson’s fifth major championship appearance of his short career, his best finish prior was T-14 at last year’s U.S. Open.
He opened the championship with competitive rounds of 72-73 and entered the weekend at plus-5, six shots back of the leaders.
Simpson went on to shoot back-to-back, two-under-par 68s, each round a testament to his precise iron play and crafty short game.
"I never wrapped my mind around winning. The course is so demanding, you don’t know if you’re going to make three or four bogeys in a row. I was just thinking about making pars."
After beginning Sunday at two over par, three shots off the lead, Simpson bogeyed two of his first five holes and nearly fizzled out of the conversation. But then Simpson kicked it into gear, pulling a Doc. Brown by gunning it to 88 mph, with the flux capacitor bringing him back to the 2011 Deutsche Bank Championship—the 2011 Fed-Ex Cup playoff event where he played like his ball was a magnet to the hole.
He turned Olympic’s punishing test into a miniature golf course, brushing away the early blunders with a string of three consecutive birdies on Holes 6, 7 and 8, followed by another on 10.
From there, his round went into cruise control with eight straight pars. Simpson’s consistency was admirable and kept him in contention, but it was absolutely brutal to watch him give himself excellent birdie opportunities, only to miss putts—sometimes by just a single revolution of the ball.
The naysayers to Simpson’s success will admonish him for not actually winning, but rather Sunday’s leaders—Graeme McDowell and Jim Furyk— for losing.
Furyk held the lead for the majority of the championship, as McDowell’s early travails with his accuracy off the tee caused him to fall back. Furyk was playing his classic, steady, resilient game—hitting fairways and greens and two putting for pars.
However, Jim Furyk will be eternally haunted by the tee shot on the 16th hole at Olympic.
For a guy who very rarely hits his ball off course, Furyk duck-hooked his drive on the Par 5, 16 hole, causing a collective "Woah" moment among the thousands of fans lining the fairway. Furyk was forced to chip out and ended up making bogey on the Par 5, putting the lead in Simpson’s hands.
From there, Furyk never fully recovered. He shot a final round 74 and tied for fourth.
Graeme McDowell did just about everything he couldn’t afford to over his first few hours on the golf course, missing eight consecutive fairways at one point and giving away three shots in the first six holes (touted as the toughest opening stretch perhaps in U.S. Open history).
His discomfort over the ball was about as subtle as the fog blanketing the course. Although he managed two birdies on 11 and 12, he erased them with bogeys on 13 and 14.
However, a late birdie on the 17th hole put him just a single stroke behind Simpson, who was looking on from the clubhouse with the lead at one over par. McDowell gave himself a legitimate opportunity for birdie and a tie, which would then force a playoff. He studied the 20-footer meticulously, while the thousands of fans surrounding him waited in absolute silence on the cascading hill that resembles a one-way amphitheater.
From the press tent, which is about a Par 5 away from the 18th hole, you can hear the crowd's reaction about eight seconds before the "live" streaming on TV delivers the action. Unfortunately for McDowell, there were no roars.
Webb Simpson didn’t lead the field in birdies or greens in regulation, or in fairways hit. He didn’t captivate sports fans like 17-year-old Beau Hossler (T29, +9) or inspire massive crowds like Tiger Woods (T21, +7).
But Simpson excelled in one of the most challenging U.S. Open venues we’ve seen in the last decade, by minimizing his mistakes and capitalizing on key opportunities.
Despite the brilliant play of so many competitors this week—Michael Thompson (T2, +2), David Toms (T3, +3), Padraig Harrington (T3, +3), Ernie Els (T4, +4)—the victory required 72 holes of pure precision.
On no other golf course and in no other major championship has the mantra ever rang more true: In golf, it’s just you against the course. Webb Simpson will never forget the Olympic hurdle he overcame Sunday at the U.S. Open.
*All quotes obtained first-hand unless otherwise noted.