Webb Simpson wins U.S. Open nail-biter

Posted: June 19, 2012

SAN FRANCISCO - Of the 17 players within 5 strokes of the lead who had a legitimate shot to win the U.S. Open entering the final round, the name of Webb Simpson didn't stand out on a list with Jim Furyk, Graeme McDowell, Ernie Els, and Tiger Woods - former Open champions all.

That didn't matter to Simpson. Even though he was 6 strokes out of first place after 36 holes and 4 back entering the final 18, he knew he had the game to win, if only he could keep his composure over the beast that was the Lake Course at the Olympic Club.

And on a foggy, misty, chilly day by the Pacific, Simpson proved himself. Playing three groups ahead of Furyk and McDowell, the 54-hole coleaders, he overcame early mistakes Sunday with four birdies in the middle of his round, showed steely nerve down the stretch, and captured the championship in just his fourth career major.

Simpson, 26, of Charlotte, N.C., fashioned a second consecutive 68 to conclude 72 holes at 1-over 281. He then waited as first Furyk fell off the pace, then McDowell missed a 24-foot birdie putt at the 18th that would have forced an 18-hole playoff.

When it was over, Simpson became the ninth straight first-time winner of a major, and the 15th different winner in the last 15 majors. And the former Arnold Palmer Scholar at Wake Forest got some satisfaction for his mentor, who blew a 7-stroke lead with nine holes to play and lost here in a playoff to Billy Casper at the 1966 Open.

But it wasn't easy. Simpson, who had six consecutive 1-putt greens - four for birdie, two to save par - in the middle of his round - called it a "nerve-racking day."

"One of my thoughts on the back nine was, 'I don't know how Tiger has won 14 of these,' " Simpson said. "I couldn't feel my legs most of the back nine."

But while Woods became an afterthought, playing his first six holes in 6-over par and winding up in a tie for 21st at 287, Simpson moved up into the spotlight with the leaders. He said he felt he had an advantage by not playing with the lead groups.

"I have no experience in major championships being in contention at all," said Simpson, said Simpson, who will rise from 14th to fifth in the world rankings when the new standings come out Monday. "I felt a lot of pressure all week. I can't imagine what it would have been like if I had been in the final group. I felt that alleviated some of the pressure - not being in the final group."

Simpson, who had a breakthrough year in 2011 with his first two PGA Tour victories, tied for 14th in his first U.S. Open last year. This year, he tied for 44th in the Masters but missed the cut in his two most recent events - The Players Championship and the Memorial - coming into the Open.

When he sank a four-footer for par at 18, yet another 1-putt green, Simpson sat back and waited for his two biggest challengers - Furyk, the 2003 Open champion at Olympia Fields, and McDowell, the 2010 winner at Pebble Beach.

But the West Chester-born Furyk, 42, who was Open runner-up in both 2006 and 2007, couldn't find a birdie the entire 18 holes. His longest made putt was a 30-footer to save par at No. 12. His worst swing of the round, a duck hook off the tee at the par-5 16th, led to a bogey that dropped him out of the lead.

Furyk dumped his second shot in a bunker at 17, another par 5, and could only par the hole. Then at the short par-4 18th, he knocked his second shot into a terrible lie in the left greenside bunker and bogeyed for a 74 and a tie for fourth at 284.

That left McDowell, who missed his birdie putt to the left. Simpson and his wife watched in the scoring tent and then celebrated.

McDowell made three birdies on the back nine, including a 12-footer at 17, during his round of 73, but he couldn't come up with a fourth.

"It was weird, because I hit that putt in practice and it moved right of the hole, and it didn't do that today," he said. "It was a nice opportunity, one that I desperately would have loved to have holed. But Webb's a great champion, and what a great weekend's work for him - 68-68."

Michael Thompson, a second-year tour player who set the pace after the first round with a 66, roared back into contention with a 67 for a 282 and sat in the clubhouse for more than 90 minutes after finishing to see whether it would be good enough for a playoff. He settled for a second-place tie with McDowell.


Contact Joe Juliano at 215-854-4494 or jjuliano@phillynews.com. Follow him @joejulesinq on Twitter. Read his blog, "Golf Inq," at philly.com/sports/golfinq

 

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