LINKS LETTER 2014 ANNUAL EDITION

NO LIMITS

By Jeff Hopper

The tight, leaning fairways of San Francisco’s Olympic Club have a way with golfers. Come here with a foursome of friends on a breezy spring day, when the fog clears and you can see the churning azure of the Pacific down one side of the giant dunes and the still blue of Lake Merced down the other, and you’ll gladly let the course beat you into submission. You’ll even buy the shirt and tell every last homie about it.

There’s good reason for this. The Olympic Club is one of those courses the USGA loves, too. So much, in fact, that it makes a habit of bringing its marquee event, the U.S. Open, to the Olympic Club’s Lake Course every 15 years or so. In between, it gets a U.S Amateur, just to keep the appetite of Northern California’s golf fans well-whetted—and perhaps to remind the comprehensive athletic club’s 5,000 members of one thing: we want you.

And so the USGA lands its venue, where the demands will border on filthy and, as is the Association’s grand want, the cream will rise to the top. Except at the Olympic Club, it never does. At least not to stay. The Olympic Club is the boneyard of the favored and the favorites. Those “supposed to win” never do. Instead we meet Jack Fleck, not Ben Hogan. Billy Casper, not Arnold Palmer. Scott Simpson, not Tom Watson. Lee Janzen, not Payne Stewart. Someone keeps leaving the door open to let Cinderella shuffle right in.

Which brings us to Webb Simpson, not Jim Furyk.

In 2012, it was Furyk, not Simpson, who had the attention of viewers, commentators, and the field as he made his way to the back nine on U.S. Open Sunday, leading a small pack of contenders who were—as happens at every national championship—finding par itself difficult enough.

Furyk was a veteran of seven Ryder Cup teams and headed to an eighth that fall. He had won 16 times on Tour, including this very championship at Olympia Fields in 2003, over the long-forgotten Stephen Leaney. No-names sat behind Furyk again in 2012: John Peterson, teen Beau Hossler, and the hard-charging Michael Thompson, who shot 67 on the final day. Simpson had won twice the season before and threatened to take the FedEx Cup, but he was known mostly to regular golf fans, not the millions who tune in come U.S. Open week. Only Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell, the 2010 champion at Pebble Beach, presented Furyk with a recognizable challenge. But for this one thing: Ahead of Furyk by four groups, Simpson turned at Olympic with a string of birdies at six, seven, eight, and ten.

Now the North Carolinian sat just one behind Furyk with fewer holes to play, which at an Open can be a distinct advantage. Not that he knew his position, for it was that same day that Paul Tesori, Simpson’s richly experienced caddie, had once and for all put the blinders on his horse: No scoreboard watching. Play your own game. So Simpson, who had only a general reference for his progress thanks to the gallery’s reactions, started collecting pars, one methodical hole after another.

About the time he was securing his sixth straight par at the sixteenth, Furyk bogeyed thirteen. Both men stood at one over par. And McDowell, who had consecutive birdies at eleven and twelve to also reach one over, then bogeyed thirteen alongside Furyk. He fell one back. The final act was opening with the kind of suspense that sports fans crave.

Simpson played the eighteenth as Furyk and McDowell teed off at the surprising par-5 sixteenth. That is, the hole itself was a huge surprise to Furyk, as the tees had been moved far forward, creating an eagle opportunity but also reshaping the hole to demand a layup or strong draw off the tee. In his confusion, what Furyk hit was a severe hook. So even while Simpson found himself with a difficult up-and-down at the eighteenth after leaving his approach in the greenside rough, Furyk was jailed in the trees and looking at little chance for par. Simpson hit a gentle little chip near the hole, Furyk gave way to bogey, and in a few minutes’ time, the members at Olympic had a new leader in their clubhouse and golf fans around the world saw a new name alone atop their leaderboard: 26-year-old Webb Simpson.

The lead would stand. Neither Furyk nor McDowell could manage a birdie over Olympic’s final holes and, in the end, it was Thompson and McDowell who finished runners-up at 282 to Simpson’s 281. Again the Olympic Club had chosen its own U.S. Open winner, with no reverence for the revered. No Furyk, no McDowell; no Tiger Woods, who faded on the weekend after sharing the 36-hole lead; no Phil Mickelson, 15 shots back; and no Rory McIlroy, the defending champion who missed the cut.

In this moment it was Simpson, holding any American golfer’s most prized trophy. It was Simpson, giving thank yous. It was Simpson, wildly upstaged by an attention-grabbing British exhibitionist dressed in bright plumage. See, even with victory sealed, Olympic’s winner couldn’t stay in front for long. Which may have been just as well, if you’re one for learning the lessons life brings.

“It’s a little odd how fast a win goes away,” Simpson reflected last fall, just days after he finally secured his next win after that 2012 Open, the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open in Las Vegas. “But I think it’s a good thing, especially for me, because I don’t want to just stay in the win. I want to move on, to prepare for the next tournament. I think that’s how Tiger Woods has been throughout his career, able to move on from a win so quickly, so many times, and do it again.”

Simpson, who now has played on a Ryder Cup and two Presidents Cup teams with Woods, is free in giving credit to the mentors who have allowed him to join McIlroy and Dustin Johnson as the PGA Tour’s winningest 20-somethings.

“Some of the older guys—Ben Crane, Lee Janzen, Zach Johnson, Jonathan Byrd—they’ve all been great. Honestly, Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods have helped a lot,” he says. “One good thing about our Tour and our sport is if you want to know something, guys will help you, more so I think than people realize.”

But how quickly the tables turn. Hardly getting along in years, Simpson found himself in that mentor’s role in Vegas, paired as he was on the final day with Tour newcomer Chesson Hadley. Simpson and Hadley actually grew up together, competing at junior golf in Raleigh, North Carolina, but Simpson is two years older and his trajectory to the Tour was a bit faster than Hadley’s. The younger man had seized the Web.com Tour Championship in late September, but before last fall his only forays onto the PGA Tour had come via sponsors’ exemptions and resulted in cuts. The last group on Sunday in a PGA Tour event was brand new. Fortunately for Hadley, the company was not.

“It was really cool,” Simpson said. “He’s such a nice kid, humble kid, and he’s played so well. Now that he’s on the Tour, I’m sure we’re going to spend a lot of time together, see him at Bible study, go to dinner together. I’ll tell him whatever he wants to know. I’m an open book for him.”

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Simpson refers to “Bible study” and “an open book” in the same train of thought. Since he first won and made reference to God, it’s been no secret that Simpson’s faith is more than another facet of an otherwise busy life. Talk to him for only a few minutes, and you’re likely to get a dose of Bible input. The trouble —if you’re the sort to be bothered by this kind of thing—is that it all comes so naturally. He really means it.

Credit his upbringing if you want. Yes, he was raised in a Christian home by parents who made sure he heard the Gospel and went to church. But this was in the American South, where churchgoing and the Gospel are cousins to a stock cars and buttered grits. Religion can be as real in the South as a midlife face in Beverly Hills.

Proof? Simpson was a religion major at Wake Forest University, where he was a three-time collegiate All-American. Yet even for Simpson, this was a ruse. “When I got to Wake, about six of the ten guys on the team were majoring in religion, so I found out that they were doing it because, as bad as it sounds, it was easier than some of the other ones. But we needed some help as much as we were gone.” It calls for a laugh, so he does. “I did it just because other people were doing it.”

But there came a time when, for Simpson, the religion of convenience met up with the begging questions of the real world. During his senior year of college, Simpson and his girlfriend, Dowd Keith, broke up. “It was a crucial time in my life,” he recalls, “because I was graduating from college, starting my professional career.”

Where does a man go to get answers at a time like this? Sometimes nowhere. “There was a moment on my couch in Winston-Salem where I felt God saying, ‘You can do life with me or without me, but with me it will be much better.’ That’s where I became serious with my faith. I began pursuing a relationship with the Lord rather than just having one. I felt God pursuing me pretty hard.”

In some ways this explains a lot. When Simpson first won on Tour, at the 2011 Wyndham Championship, he talked openly about his faith, saying, “The way I see it, if God wants me to win, then I will. If not, you know, I’ll have plenty more opportunities.” It was the kind of winner’s reflection that gains some fans and makes unhappy critics of others. What’s God got to do with it? they want to know. Great athletes win because of all the work they put in.

For a long time, Simpson lived his life this same way, figuring that if God thought anything of him, it had to do with the work he was doing, the right and the wrong. “I viewed Christianity as a set of rules, do’s and don’ts—this is what you do to make God proud, this is what you don’t do to make him proud,” he says.

But a single encounter changed his mind. “One thing that hit me really hard, that really rocked me, was when someone told me that you can’t do anything to make God love you more or make him love you less, which blew me away. It made me realize that God’s love for me is concrete, it’s steadfast, it’s for real and never-changing.”

That can make all the difference in a competitive arena like professional golf, where one bad shot can lead to another, and it doesn’t take long to fall off the game’s radar of success. It’s also what many fans don’t understand about a golfer who thanks God after a win, and they mistake the athlete’s faith for a magic formula or a statement that God favors winners over losers.

Ask Simpson what difference Jesus makes for him on the golf course, and winning doesn’t even enter the conversation. “My relationship with Jesus gives me purpose out there, a greater purpose than any other purpose anybody could have—a purpose greater than making money, than earning fame, than creating a reputation. My purpose out here is to honor God in everything I do, do my best for him, and that purpose leads me to the greatest peace I can have.

“It’s easy to see how a lot of guys would live and die by each drive or each tournament or each year. But for me, I feel like if I put in my time, if I honor God, if I do what I’m supposed to do, then I’ll be able to have peace knowing the results are in his hands. I think that effect that he has through my purpose—why am I out there, why is my caddie out there with me, why are we doing this together, why are we working hard, are we working hard to create a name for ourselves or are we working hard to glorify the Lord—then that purpose leads us to a peace that I wouldn’t trade for anything.”

A materialist might not trade a Tour trophy for a non-palpable commodity like peace, but Simpson’s approach translates well on the home front, where he did eventually marry Dowd in 2010 and together the couple has two children, James and Willow. Of course, Simpson will tell you the favor is returned.

“As every dad says on Tour, kids just put golf in perspective. It’s so true. At Hilton Head, I lost a playoff to Graeme McDowell and they ran out. They couldn’t care less whether I won or lost, they didn’t know. They’re not going to treat me any different.”

The same isn’t true for golf fans, of course. As a U.S. Open champ and multiple winner on the PGA Tour, Simpson can’t hide in anonymity anymore. And there’s much about him to like. For the traditionalists, he dresses snappily and has even lost a tournament because he had to call a late penalty on himself—a moving ball, which no one else saw, on the fifteenth green at the 2011 Zurich Classic. For the hipsters, he is one of just five players under 30 who have won a major championship, alongside McIlroy, Keegan Bradley, Martin Kaymer and Charl Schwartzel (with the last two turning 30 in 2014).

The trick, of course, is staying power. When Simpson won at Las Vegas last fall, he said he was glad to finally validate his win because he didn’t want to be a player who just “popped up” on Tour then disappeared.

“When you look at guys who’ve had long careers and play well every year, they are consistent in their daily routine,” Simpson observes. “They’re never changing a whole lot. They believe in their process and what they’re trying to accomplish, and they’re patient. That’s synonymous with guys who’ve had long careers.”

You might not be surprised that he finds a metaphor from this for his walk of faith: “Waiting is a good struggle. The Bible makes tons of promises and one of those promises is that what you sow, you will reap. And Proverbs talks about how a steady plodder will have much gain. A lot of times we can’t see it until so much has gone on. Then we look back and say, ‘OK, I see what God was doing.’ So I think God wants us to be consistent and hungry in our walks with him, never settling, and continuing to pursue him. I know for a fact that I’m a mess as a father, husband, golfer, friend, if I’m not continually, consistently walking with the Lord.”

And from there you make a pretty good guess to speculate that Webb Simpson doesn’t assess his success based on scores or victories.

“When it comes to goals, that’s pretty easy for me,” he explains. “I set one goal each year. That’s, January 1 to December 31, to get better than I was the year before. Even before I won in Las Vegas, I knew I was better. I was hitting more quality shots down the stretch, I was hitting better shots when the pressure was on. So I had a peace knowing that, Hey, I’ve done my work this year, I’ve gotten better.

“I’ve never set result-oriented goals. I just don’t like that. But when it comes to God’s will, I feel like it’s kind of a both-and. You reach for the stars. You don’t set limits on what God can do through you. But at the end of the day, you rest in his will and you rest in his plan for your life.

“I would be dumb to think that God can’t take me to number one in the world. But at the same time if I made it my life’s purpose to be number one, I think that would be dishonoring to God and my family because it would take so much time and effort if that was my one and only purpose. I’ve got to continue to let God take me to number one if that’s what he wants, but if he doesn’t want that, I can rest in his will.”

OK, so maybe these do sound like the words of a religion major. But the now 27-year-old Webb Simpson is not the 21-year-old Webb Simpson. He’s made the step from All-American to American champion. He’s a husband and a father. And he walks with a confidence that comes from something bigger still. “I’ve already gained God’s full approval,” he says, “and not from doing something or not doing something. I’ve gained it through believing in the death, burial and resurrection of his Son Jesus. Now my motivation in doing right and wrong is not based on good merit or a good grade. It’s based on wanting to respond to what he did for me.”

COPYRIGHT 2014 LINKS PLAYERS INTERNATIONAL

  • Webb Simpson

    4 PGA Tour Wins (one major): 2011 Wyndham Championship, 2011 Deutsche Bank Championship, 2012 U.S. Open, 2013 Shriners Hospitals for Children Open