Wearing the gold winner’s medal around his neck and hoisting the silver U.S. Open trophy over his head, Webb Simpson continued a trend in major golf championships with his win at San Francisco’s Olympic Club.
The sport’s crop of younger players are capable of pulling off victories on the biggest stages, while Tiger Woods, once the most dominant golfer, continues his struggles to close the gap on Jack Nicklaus’s record 18 major titles.
“Everybody is so competitive,” said Simpson, 26. “We just kind of feed off each other.”
Simpson’s win yesterday follows April’s Masters Tournament victory by 33-year-old Bubba Watson and 25-year-old Keegan Bradley at last year’s PGA Championship. Bradley was in his first full season on the U.S. PGA Tour when he pulled out the unlikely playoff win over Jason Dufner in Atlanta in August.
“I respect his game a ton, but I feel like, Keegan Bradley won one, I want to go win one,” Simpson said in a press conference. “I played with these guys all my life. They’re great players, but I wanted to do what they’re doing.”
Simpson became the ninth first-time winner in a row at golf’s major championships and the 14th consecutive different winner of the four Grand Slam events. Woods’s last major victory came at the 2008 U.S. Open.
Simpson entered the final round in eighth place, four shots behind third-round co-leaders Jim Furyk and Graeme McDowell, both former U.S. Open champions. And with two-time U.S. Open winner Ernie Els also making an early move up the leaderboard yesterday, the victory was far from certain for Simpson, who was making his second appearance in the tournament after finishing 14th a year earlier.
Michael Thompson of the U.S. and McDowell of Northern Ireland, the 2010 champion, tied for second at 2 over. Furyk, the 2003 winner from the U.S., bogeyed three of the final six holes after entering the last round tied for the lead with McDowell. He finished at 3 over.
McDowell had a chance to tie Simpson with a downhill, 25-foot putt on the 18th green. As Simpson watched from inside the clubhouse with his wife, Dowd, McDowell’s putt slid by on the left side of the hole.
Simpson said he was happy to avoid an 18-hole playoff.
“I was just as nervous watching on the telecast as I was playing,” he said. “One of my thoughts on the back nine was, ‘I don’t know how Tiger has won 14 of these things,’ because of the pressure. I couldn’t feel my legs most of the back nine.”
For Woods, the tournament was yet another detour along his road to golf recovery. He came into the event off a confidence-boosting win two weeks earlier at Nicklaus’s Memorial Tournament. That victory appeared to be a turning point, as Woods said his revamped swing was as consistent as it had been since he began his makeover with coach Sean Foley almost two years ago.
Players gushed over his ball-striking. Watson, who played with Woods the first two days, said his play reminded him of “the old Tiger. It was beautiful to watch.”
After the second round, Woods said his even-par round of 70 was a better accomplishment than the 1-under 69 a day earlier. His caddie, Joe LaCava, said his boss looked ready to win a major again.
Then came his 5-over-par 75 in the third round, dropping him five shots off the lead. He ended the tournament at 287 in 21st place, his worst U.S. Open placing over four rounds.
“There’s a lot of positives this week,” Woods told reporters after the final round. “I hit the ball really well. Unfortunately I just didn’t have the speed of the greens.”
Woods’s weekend troubles were most evident on the course’s difficult first six holes. After playing the stretch at even par the first two rounds, Woods was 9 over on the holes in the final two days. A 2-over score would have been good enough to win the tournament.
“The first six, I just didn’t play well at all,” he said. “I just could never get anything going positively.”
Simpson played the first six holes 4-over par for the tournament. Five of the first six holes ranked as the most difficult in the tournament for the entire field.
Woods’s next chance to close the gap on Nicklaus’s major record will begin July 19, when the British Open starts at Royal Lytham and St. Annes Golf Club in Lancashire, England.
Simpson’s win continues a trend of unlikely champions at the Olympic Club, a course built into a hillside sand dune along the Pacific Ocean.
In 1998, Lee Janzen overcame a five-shot deficit in the final round to beat Payne Stewart, who missed an 8-foot par putt on the fast-rolling final green and was left with a 25-foot putt coming back. He missed his second attempt. In 1987, Scott Simpson birdied three straight holes on the back nine to beat eight-time major champion Tom Watson.
In the first of five U.S. Opens to be played at the club, Jack Fleck, a full-time professional for just six months, birdied two of his final four holes in the fourth round and went on to defeat Ben Hogan in a playoff.
Webb Simpson’s win may have helped avenge the 1966 loss by Arnold Palmer at Olympic. That year, Billy Casper won in a playoff after Palmer surrendered a 7-shot lead with nine holes to play in the fourth round.
Simpson attended Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, on an Arnold Palmer scholarship.
“He’s meant so much to me,” Simpson said of the 82-year-old Palmer. “To win here with what happened to him, I hope he can smile and I hope he was watching.”