Ardmore, Pa. – Webb Simpson was fully expecting to have a life-altering experience last summer. He just thought it was going to happen in July, not in June.
Simpson’s wife, Dowd, gave birth to the couple’s second child, Willow Grace, on July 28, a year after they welcomed son John.
But the Charlotte, N.C., resident also wound up getting a Father’s Day gift he’ll never forget. Playing nearly flawless golf on The Olympic Club’s demanding Lake Course, Simpson shot a pair of 2-under 68s over the final two rounds to claim the 2012 U.S. Open by one stroke over 2010 champion Graeme McDowell and Michael Thompson.
Despite being a two-time PGA Tour champion who was ranked in the top 15 of the Official World Golf Ranking, Simpson, then 26 and making his second U.S. Open start, was a virtual unknown to casual fans.
That changed on a cool Sunday afternoon in San Francisco.
Thanks to worldwide media attention, people no longer need a media guide to recognize Simpson.
“Me personally … I don’t think I’ve changed,” said Simpson via Skype at 2013 U.S. Open Media Day at Merion Golf Club on April 30, six weeks before beginning his title defense and four days ahead of the first of 111 Open local qualifiers, today on the East Course at the Club at Admiral’s Cove in Jupiter, Fla. The USGA accepted a record 9,860 entries for this year’s U.S. Open.
“I hope I haven’t [changed],” Simpson continued. “I don’t want to change based on successes or failures, but when it comes to golf, a lot has changed. My World Ranking went up a lot. I think I made it to fifth in the world (from No. 14) after the U.S. Open. My confidence grew tremendously.”
Coming into the U.S. Open, Simpson wasn’t considered a strong contender. He had missed the cut at his two starts leading into the championship: The Players Championship and The Memorial, both big events on the PGA Tour schedule.
But Simpson, a 2007 USA Walker Cup Team member and Wake Forest All-American, had affection for The Olympic Club. Even though he had lost, ironically, to eventual runner-up Thompson in the first round of the 2007 U.S. Amateur at Olympic, Simpson walked away with positive thoughts.
He’ll bring similar memories to Merion, a venue he played for the first time eight years ago. Simpson advanced to the second round of the 2005 U.S. Amateur, falling to future PGA Tour winner Anthony Kim. Just as in 2007 at Olympic, Simpson instantly fell in love with Merion. He’s maintained that level of fondness in subsequent visits.
“I tell people all the time it is my favorite golf course in the world,” said Simpson. “What it demands out of the players is so different than most golf courses. It seems like most golf courses now are evolving to be a bombers’ paradise [where] every par 4 is 500 yards and you hit driver on every hole.
“Merion’s the opposite. I only hit a few drivers. That’s where I think that [experience] will help me. I’ve already played in a big championship there. There are a lot of intricacies with Merion that a player will go around for the first time and not see them all.”
Because Merion rewards precision over power, Simpson already knows he’ll be wearing out his hybrid 3-iron from many of the teeing grounds. At Merion, controlling ball flight and playing from the fairway are vital for success.
He pointed to the par-4 11th, a 367-yard downhill hole featuring a blind tee shot. Baffling Brook runs down the left-hand side, then crosses in front of and hugs the right side of the green.
“[It] is going to be something around a 230- to 250[-yard] club,” said Simpson of the tee shot. “If you drive it in the rough, you are probably not going to go for the green because you won’t be able to clear the water. So it turns into a quick bogey. [But] if you drive it in the fairway, you’ll have a sand wedge [approach] and it’s a great birdie hole.”
Simpson’s game seems to be rounding into shape for his defense. He skipped the 2012 British Open for Willow’s birth, and then failed to play the weekend at the next two majors, the PGA Championship and last month’s Masters. But Simpson nearly claimed the RBC Heritage a week after his disappointing performance at Augusta National. He tied McDowell over 72 holes, though McDowell prevailed at Harbour Town Golf Links when Simpson three-putted from the fringe on the first playoff hole.
Going into the Wells Fargo Championship in his adopted hometown of Charlotte, Simpson had made eight of 11 cuts in 2013 with two top-10s and a quarterfinal showing at the Accenture Match Play Championship. He hopes that solid form will continue into the second week of June.
“It’s an honor for me to defend such a big title,” said Simpson. “But it’s even more of an honor at a place I love. I can’t wait to get there.”
David Shefter is a senior staff writer with the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.