Webb Simpson feeling right at home
U.S. Open champ continues prep to defend his major title with backyard tuneup
As the reigning U.S. Open champion, it's easy for Webb Simpson to look ahead to June, when he will have an opportunity to defend that title at the Merion Golf Club outside Philadelphia.
The 27-year-old former Wake Forest star already has a game plan for the historic site that has hosted four previous U.S. Opens.
"I look at it as two different golf courses," he said on Monday of Merion's East course. "Potentially, through 13 holes, if you drive it well, you can have nine wedge opportunities. And then the last five are going to be some of maybe the hardest that we have ever had in the U.S. Open.
"So you kind of have the best of both worlds. And that's why I think this U.S. Open is going to be so unique in the sense that I don't think a long player or short player has an advantage."
Simpson has the best of both worlds this week at the Wells Fargo Championship at the Quail Hollow Golf Club in Charlotte, where he lives with his wife, Dowd, and two children. The Raleigh, N.C., native gets to sleep in his own bed and play a golf course where he is a member and has fond memories.
Furthermore, this tournament, where he finished fourth last year, is an important stop on the slow march to Merion. He will be in The Players Championship and the Memorial between now and the U.S. Open, but this is home, where it feels the best to hear the announcer on the first tee call him a U.S. Open champion.
Quail Hollow, which will host the 2017 PGA Championship, has become a favorite stop for the game's elite. Tiger Woods opted not to play here this year, but five of the top 10 players in the world are in the field, including Phil Mickelson and Rory McIlroy, who got his first tour win here in 2010.
"Quail Hollow is always one of the best-conditioned courses that we play all year," Simpson said. "It's a very fair golf course with par-5s that you can reach in two, and it's a great test.
"They call the last three holes the Green Mile because it's one of the most difficult finishing stretches that we see on tour. You can make birdies. You can make bogeys. And Charlotte has fans that really understand golf."
After missing the cut at the Masters, Simpson went home to his beloved Charlotte much sooner than he would have liked. But then the very next week he lost in a playoff to Graeme McDowell in Hilton Head. With his caddie, Paul Tesori, who also helps him with his swing, Simpson is continually working on fundamentals. They see the effort paying dividends.
"I was a little inconsistent going into last year's Open," said Simpson, who missed his two cuts before his major triumph at the Olympic Club. "But I know the state of my game to be better than it was at this point last year. I'm more confident and more secure in my equipment. So I feel like I'm in a good place mentally as well as physically."
Since that win at Olympic, the three-time tour winner has changed his driver, ball and irons. The only clubs left in his bag from the week of his U.S. Open win are his wedges and his controversial belly putter, which is slated to be banned in 2016.
Simpson, who has used this putting method since college, has been unflinching in his dislike of the proposed ban. He points to the lack of belly users among the top statistical leaders in putting on tour.
Adam Scott's win at the Masters marked the fourth time in six majors that a player has won using the method. Yet Simpson said that not once while he was watching the close of the tournament did it occur to him what kind of putter Scott was using.
"I don't think whether more guys win with the belly putter or not is going to change the outcome of the rule," he said. "I will be comfortable with whatever they decide. I'm certainly not in favor of the ban, but I want to be ready for whatever happens."
More pressing for Simpson is playing himself into shape for Merion, yet he doesn't feel any more pressure now to win as a major champion.
"I think guys win majors and put pressure on themselves to perform like a major champion," Simpson said. "I try not to do that."
One of his friends, Eric Metaxas, told him how he handled the fame of writing a best-selling biography on theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Metaxas said he didn't feel like he was any better of a writer than he was before the book became a success.
"That's kind of been my mindset in the aftermath of the U.S. Open," Simpson said. "Just because I won that tournament doesn't mean that I'm a different player than I was before.
"So that's kind of helped me to not put pressure on myself as a U.S. Open champion, but to perform the way Webb Simpson would perform."
On Monday, Simpson said that he favored a player with a great wedge game to excel at Merion. He was in the '05 U.S. Amateur when it was held at Merion and has played there through the years in corporate outings. He calls it his favorite golf course.
"What it demands out of the players is so different than most golf courses, and it seems like most golf courses now are evolving to be bombers' paradise, every par-4 is 500 yards and you hit driver on every hole," he said.
"Where Merion's the opposite; I only hit a few drivers. And so for me to try to defend such a big title, it's an honor, but it's even more of an honor at a place I love. I can't wait to get there."
But before he can focus on Merion, he has to deal with Quail Hollow and this great field assembled for the Wells Fargo Championship.
On Monday afternoon, Simpson took out time for one of his sponsors to help a Charlotte charity that was raising money to supply furniture and beds to families and children in the area. He narrowly missed a target with a 100-yard wedge shot that that would have meant $100,000 to the charity.
Still, his efforts resulted in a $20,000 donation on his behalf from his apparel sponsor.
Down the road at Merion and likely this week at Quail Hollow, he will get another opportunity to show off his skills with his wedges.