SAN FRANCISCO – In a little more than six months, they shared the stage in a playoff, became fast friends through their faith and then partners in the Presidents Cup.
Webb Simpson and Bubba Watson are linked again in ways they never imagined.
Simpson joined the most important fraternity in golf Sunday at The Olympic Club with a flourish of birdies and a steady diet of pars at the end. The last one came from a delicate chip out of a hole in the rough to 3 feet that wound up being the decisive stroke in the U.S. Open.
On a leaderboard loaded with possibilities, his name did not stand out. Simpson was playing in only his fifth major and his second U.S. Open. He had missed the cut in his last two tournaments. And he was six shots out of the lead when he walked off the fifth green with his second bogey of the day.
Some four hours later, Simpson sat in the clubhouse with his pregnant wife, Dowd. They tried to take their mind off the finish by watching videos of their young son, James, who stayed behind in North Carolina. She squeezed tight on his hand as they watched Jim Furyk hit into the bunker on the 18th to eliminate his chances, and then Graeme McDowell missed a 25-foot birdie putt that would have forced a playoff.
“If I was honest with you, I believed in myself (that) I could win a major, but maybe not so soon,” Simpson said. “And I just gained all the respect for the guys who have won multiple majors because it’s so hard to do. The level of pressure is so much greater than a regular event.”
“I probably prayed more the last three holes than I ever did in my life,” said Simpson, a religion major at Wake Forest.
It was Simpson who called over to Watson, their caddies and their wives to huddle under an umbrella on the green at Royal Melbourne for a quick prayer after they won a match that set the tone in the Presidents Cup.
They are nothing alike. Watson manufactured a swing on a public course in the Florida Panhandle and doesn’t have a formal teacher. Simpson grew up at a country club and even played Augusta National when he was a teenager. Watson speaks his mind. Simpson is more reserved.
Watson and Simpson traded text messages the morning of the final round last year in New Orleans. Watson wound up beating him in a playoff, but the relationship took root. When it became clear they would qualify for the Presidents Cup, they asked U.S. captain Fred Couples if they could be partners. They won three of their matches.
Couples was wandering around Olympic and watched it unfold.
Simpson had a 68-68 weekend – he was the only player in the last nine groups who broke par in the foggy final round – and finished at 1-over 281 for a one-shot win over McDowell and Michael Thompson, who had a 67 that almost was good enough to return Monday for a playoff.
He went to No. 5 in the world. He went to No. 3 in the Ryder Cup standings. And he extended a modest streak that indicates a quiet return of American golf.
The Americans now have won the last three majors dating to Keegan Bradley’s playoff win at the PGA Championship in August. It might not sound like much, but it had been more than five years since Americans won three consecutive majors (two of those by Tiger Woods) and more than eight years since three different Americans put together a streak that long.
The United States started the year with only six players among the top 15. Now there are nine.
And these majors are coming from unlikely sources.
Bradley became only the second player in nearly 100 years to win on his first try at a major. Watson always had the talent, though his composure always was in question until he made four consecutive birdies on the back nine at Augusta National. He won his playoff by hooking a wedge some 40 yards out of the trees and onto the green to win with a par.
Simpson won twice last year on the PGA Tour and lost a shot at the money title in the final round of the year. Even so, the 26-year-old had been quiet this year and didn’t have high expectations even as he played the final round.
“I never really wrapped my mind around winning,” Simpson said. “This place is so demanding, and so all I was really concerned about was keeping the ball in front of me and making pars. The course is so hard, you don’t know if you’re going to make three or four bogeys in a row.”
He left that to the others.
McDowell made four bogeys on the front nine and had to spend the rest of the day catching up. He holed a clutch birdie on the 17th hole to get within one shot and gave himself a look at birdie on the final hole.
Furyk looked strong as ever, even rolling in a 30-foot par putt on the 12th hole, but a snap hook off the tee at the par-5 16th led to bogey, and he made bogey when he needed birdie on the 18th by hitting into the bunker.
While Simpson admired Woods and his 14 majors, inspiration came from Bradley.
“If I see Keegan Bradley win a major – I respect his game a ton – but I feel like, ‘Keegan Bradley won one, I want to go win one,’” Simpson said. “All these guys that won before me, I thought, ‘I want to win a tournament.’ They’re great players, but I want to do what they’re doing.”
It seems as though everyone is doing that.
Simpson is the 15th different player to win the last 15 majors, the kind of parity golf hasn’t seen since a similar streak 14 years ago that ended with Lee Janzen’s win at Olympic Club in 1998.
Simpson didn’t have an answer for so many different players winning majors.
“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,’” Simpson said. “I couldn’t feel my legs most of the back nine. It grew my respect for Tiger all the more. I think the prime of golf was mid-30s. Now it’s moving closer to the mid-20s or late 20s. There’s so many young guys.”
That they are young is not a surprise. Six of the last eight major champions were in their 20s.
The surprise is that more of them are Americans.