PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – How do you celebrate the inevitable? The answer is you don’t, certainly not in golf, and certainly not at TPC Sawgrass — even if you’re leading by seven shots with 18 holes to play.
History told us Webb Simpson was safe on Sunday, that his advantage was insurmountable, that no one in the history of the PGA TOUR had ever lost when entering the final round with such a cushion. Winning THE PLAYERS Championship would be a mere formality, an 18-hole coronation, a nice Sunday stroll on Mother’s Day.
On the surface, that’s exactly what happened. Simpson shot a final-round 1-over 73 marred by a meaningless double bogey at the final hole, to win by a comfortable four strokes over Charl Schwartzel, Jimmy Walker and Xander Schauffele. It was, seemingly, a drama-free day. No mystery here. Move along.
And yet …
“Harder than I thought,” Simpson said.
“Longest round of golf I’ve ever caddied in my life,” added sidekick Paul Tesori.
While Simpson is a past U.S. Open champ (2012), he had not posted a TOUR win in his previous 107 starts. In that span, he had experienced two traumatic moments – one that affected his career; the other, more emotionally challenging one, that affected his family.
At one point, those closest to him wondered if the 32-year-old would ever achieve the kind of success that appeared inevitable after his major win at the Olympic Club. The ban on anchor putters starting in 2016 had crippled Simpson’s game. He questioned his ability, with tough nights of self-examination.
“I don’t know if he’ll say this, but I’ll say it – I don’t know if we would ever get to experience this again,” Tesori said in the afterglow of Sunday’s win.
Meanwhile, Sam Simpson – not just Webb’s dad but his best friend — had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Their bond of golf has always been a key part of their relationship, but just when Webb could have used him the most, Sam was simply too sick to offer specifics on how to fix his game. Still, there were much-needed words of encouragement.
“He was still helping me through it and mentoring me,” Simpson said.
It was a year ago that Webb finally found his putting stroke with his new grip, having solicited help from a variety of sources, including Phil Mickelson, Bernhard Langer and THE PLAYERS winner in 2010, Tim Clark. Then in November, Sam Simpson passed away at the age of 74. The loss was tough, but for the faith-minded Simpson, at least there was closure.
Winning, though, remained elusive.
And so that’s why, even with a seven-stroke lead, neither Simpson nor Tesori let their minds drift beyond the task in hand. No need to tempt the golf gods with a premature celebration of the inevitable.
In fact, on Saturday night, Tesori was watching golf highlights with his wife Michelle at their house just a few miles from TPC Sawgrass when the history of safe leads was brought up on TV. Tesori told his wife that no lead was insurmountable. He had grown up in the area, and remembered that Davis Love III shot 64 to win in 2003 and that Fred Couples shot 64 to win in 1996. If someone shot 64 on Sunday, then Simpson would need to shoot under par.
Plus, Tesori had first-hand experience with losing large leads. He was on the bag for Sean O’Hair in 2009 when he took a five-shot lead entering the final round at Bay Hill. After the first six holes, Tiger Woods had tied O’Hair for the lead and eventually went on to a one-stroke win.
“I’d much rather be 7 up than 5 up,” Tesori said. “But when I saw it on TV, I thought, man, you don’t want to make history that way.”
So the key would be to not deviate from what got them that lead. For Simpson, that meant staying in his routine. This week, he’s been a frequent visitor at a couple of Starbucks in the area. His favorite drink is a six-shot ristretto espresso that gives him an afternoon boost. But when he has coffee in the morning before a round, it’s always decaf.
Well, usually decaf.
Before the final round of the 2012 U.S. Open, Webb and his wife Dowd were having breakfast. Webb asked her to order him a cup of decaf, but Dowd forgot and accidentally ordered a regular cup. “It served him well,” she recalled with a laugh.
On Sunday morning before heading to TPC Sawgrass, Webb was having coffee at the Starbucks in Jacksonville Beach when Dowd called him. She was coming to town to watch the final round, although their four kids stayed back home in North Carolina. She thinks Webb was drinking decaf but “maybe he did have regular again.”
Dowd and Webb first met as students at Wake Forest. It was, interesting enough, Sam Simpson that set them up. Dowd had attended a party for one of her best friends who had grown up with Webb. Sam was at the party, spotted Dowd across the room and made a bold offer: If she would go out with her son, he would pay her $100.
Dowd told Sam, “If he’s half as cute as you, I’d do it for free.”
As it turned out, she took the money, used it for the date to a local steakhouse. It was love at first sight – all thanks to Sam. “I think he just wanted his dorky golfer son to be seen with an older girl on campus,” Dowd said.
Dowd had no doubt that her husband would keep the proper focus Sunday after that cup of coffee. Tesori liked his man’s mindset too, although he noticed a few alarming moments on the course. An early three-putt was disturbing. Then a couple of mental errors around the turn. After a bogey on the 10th hole reduced Simpson’s lead to four strokes, Tesori spoke up.
“Hey, bud, are you really dialed in?”
“Yeah,” replied Simpson.
“I don’t think you are,” said Tesori, noting that Simpson was missing his yardage numbers far more on Sunday than the previous three days.
That’s when they got back to business. Their mantra all week had been: Be aggressive to conservative targets. At the par-5 11th, Simpson launched a 281-yard tee shot that split the fairway – “The biggest shot of the entire day,” Tesori said – and eventually birdied the hole. Crisis averted.
Once Simpson landed his tee shot safely onto the island-green 17th, only then could the celebration truly start.
“It’s hard not to future cast and start thinking about 7 p.m. (when the tournament ended) and what might happen,” Simpson said. “But you do your best to not stay in that place, and I kept reminding myself today that the only thing that matters is the next shot. It’s easy to do on Thursday; it’s a lot harder to do today.”
It’s even harder to do after a four-year drought and a rollercoaster ride of emotions. In the end, though, it simply took great putting, a stay-in-the-moment focus … and a cup of coffee.