They took away more than Webb Simpson’s belly putter when the anchoring rule came into force in 2016. They took away his game.
One of the best flat stick exponents – extolling a stroke that won him a US Open title in 2012 – suddenly became one of the worst on the PGA Tour, ranking 177th in 2016 during a year that brought just two top 10s.
It was at The Players, a year later, where the American finally found a chink of light. He started using the claw grip, and holding the shaft up against his left forearm.
Results improved and, 12 twelve months ago, Simpson returned to TPC Sawgrass and produced a mesmerising performance to claim his first victory since 2013.
Ahead of trying to become the first player to go back-to-back in the 45-year history of a tournament that’s routinely called the ‘5th major’, we caught up with Simpson in Ponte Vedra Beach to look back at his comeback win and find out how to play this iconic course.
What clicked for you last year? It wasn’t a stroll, but it was almost pressure free…
I was playing well going into this event. I showed up after finishing 21st the week before in Charlotte. I was confident.
I didn’t really think anything special was going to happen per se but I had a great first round and a memorable second round.
Sometimes I think as an athlete, for whatever reason, all of a sudden you start performing at a much higher level and it’s kind of out of nowhere.
That’s what happened and I rode the momentum into the weekend and held on to win.
Obviously the putting stroke you are now using has been key to that. Just tell me it’s origins and what difference it’s made…
So I tried to arm lock a couple of years ago and it felt a little uncomfortable but I liked my stroke with it.
I was putting pretty well at first but then I started putting a little inconsistently. I showed up here in 2017 and Tim Clark asked me if I’d ever tried the claw. I tried it and felt pretty good.
I showed up Thursday morning, still unsure which grip I was going to use and I went out and putted with the claw and putted great. I think that was my best finish, before last year, and it was 16th.
That was the first time I felt like ‘man, four days of really good putting in a row’. That kept going for the next year. It’s still going and I’m putting a lot better.
This is a very different golf course you’re going to face this year. The tournament has returned to March and the layout has been completely overseeded with ryegrass over the past few months. What difference do you think it’s going to make?
I think it’s going to make a big difference. Typically these fairways are hard to hit because they’re firm and they’re tight. But I think this grass makes the ground softer so the fairways, in a sense, become wider.
You might see guys taking more club off the tee than they would if it was in May.
Around the greens, the chipping areas are pristine so chipping the ball around here in May is pretty scary because it’s thick Bermuda shakedown.
But now they’ve got this overseed so the ball kind of sits up there every time. Then there are the greens. As of now, they are softer. They’re a little slower but I don’t think they’ll be slower for the tournament.
I do think those factors are telling you it’s going to be easier, but then we’re going to probably have to deal with the winds and the cooler temperatures.
So who knows what it’ll be like? But I think if we have good weather the scoring might be a little better.
The 17th is the hole that gets every one talking. How does a top professional play that hole and what’s the mental approach, particularly when the wind is moving about?
Well, it’s easy to get distracted with all the water and all the fans. So what I do is take 10 yards on the green. Wherever the pin is, I’m trying to land it 10 yards on the green every day right in the middle of the green.
I figure if I do that I’ll probably play it in even par, or even better, and that’s giving me the best chance of success – instead of trying to fire at pins or get the distance just right – because there’s a couple of sucker pins that try to reel you in.
You only have a pitching wedge and you’re thinking normally you’ll make birdie, or at least try to, but that hole is a little different.
Par is always good there.
That Sunday pin in particular is very tight…
It is. I mean that’s a pin I’m not really even looking at. I’m still looking 30 feet left and a little short of it, which I did last year on Sunday. I hit it to about 45 feet.
That back three, actually, is a pretty sensational stretch of golf. When a tournament is on the line, how do you cope with those holes?
You try to treat the shot as any other shot. So, for example, Sunday morning my caddie Paul (Tesori) already knew the yardage for 17. He had been out there.
I hit that exact shot on the driving range. They have a replica of the 17th green over here so I’ve already hit the shot that day and it’s not treating that shot any differently than I did on the driving range. It’s hard to do but it helps.
It certainly helps with the process.
There’s obviously 16 and 18 as well. They’re very different tests with the second shot on 16 and the drive on 18. Take me through your process there…
So 16, you know being in the lead, I was aiming left of the green but not too left. If you get it too far left you can get some tough lies over there.
But, more than anything, I told Paul I wanted to hit a cut. So if I overcut it it’s in the water but I’m dropping way up there instead of hitting a draw out over the water.
It’s the same with 18. I’m starting it right and hitting a draw, in case I overturn it and then I get to drop way down there instead of having a drop back on the tee.
And, for me, that’s brought a sense of comfort knowing if I happened to overturn even one of these shots I’m going to drop way up there versus right here.
You’re one of eight players to have the course record of 63 so you’re a perfect person to tell us amateurs how to play the Stadium Course. How do we go about it?
Stay away from trouble as much as you can. Lay back when you have to. Don’t be afraid to hit a 5-wood or 3-wood off the tee.
And just because a pin looks accessible with a sand wedge or pitching wedge don’t go for it.
Returning to last year, when the pressure is on the line, how do you put club on ball when you know what’s at stake?
It’s a matter of ‘can I go about my business without thinking about it?’ I did a good job of that. If you dwell on the ‘what ifs’ then you’re probably not going to perform well.
So I try to take it one step at a time and just look at what was in front of me and take care of that and move on to the next thing.
That’s why I think Sunday was the longest round of my life because I had such a big lead. It was mine to give up. And I couldn’t go to the ‘what ifs’. I had to stay in the first hole, and the second hole, and the third hole.
How difficult is that? It seems almost impossible not to start thinking ahead and yet you’ve had a whole night with that lead to think about it…
I think we get used to playing in big moments. We start knowing what to expect. You know it’s going to be hard playing with the lead. But everybody’s dealing with the same stuff.
Maybe some guys are chasing for the win, maybe some guys are leading and trying to win, but we’re all feeling the same things, which brings comfort.
You’re a major champion as well. How does The Player’s compare in the pantheon of your career?
It’s the most meaningful. The US Open (at Olympic in 2012) was obviously amazing, being a major. But having gone what I went through, and having that many years without a win, The Players was the most satisfying for sure.
There’s a very new structure to the FedEx Cup this year, and particularly the play-offs. What are your thoughts about that?
I like it. I think it gives us a better rhythm throughout the year and I like that’s there’s only three playoff events.
There was a bit of a lull in the playoffs in years’ past of it dragging on for four or five events in five weeks. So I think this year there will be more excitement.
I think guys are going to be engaged more towards the end of the season – especially with the regular FedEx Cup bonus payout. You might have guys play a couple of events at the end that they wouldn’t normally play.
I think having The Players and a major each month is a great thing and exciting for golf.
Finally, looking forward to returning as defending champion and trying to do it again?
I’m very excited. I actually didn’t know that no one’s ever won back-to-back. So it adds to the challenge of defending and I look forward to that.
How Webb proved to be quite a Player
After an opening 66 saw him well placed on a stacked first day leaderboard, Webb Simpson’s second round 63 (-9) tied the course record and helped him open up a five shot lead.
His halfway score of 129 after 36 holes also tied Jason Day for the tournament record and meant the event was his to lose.
Simpson extended his advantage to seven over Danny Lee after a third day 68 and he was able to freewheel home – finishing in 73 strokes to beat Xander Schauffele, Charl Schwartzel and Jimmy Walker by four shots. He picked up a first prize of $1.98 million.