Simpson joins list of winning young pros after making changes

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Webb Simpson picked up two quick victories on the PGA TOUR and joined an elite group of young players.
September 13, 2011
Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM Chief of Correspondents

LEMONT, Ill. -- Their success wasn't lost on Webb Simpson.

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After all, five of the last six major champions are in their 20s. Two, in fact, are even younger than the 26-year-old North Carolinian. Other contemporaries such as Dustin Johnson and Hunter Mahan had already won multiple times and become regulars at the game's biggest events, too.

Simpson certainly didn't begrudge players like Keegan Bradley, Charl Schwartzel and Rory McIlroy their success. He just wanted to join them -- and he knew exactly what he needed to do.

"You're sitting back and you're watching them play in the biggest tournaments that the game has to offer, and the competitor inside you wants to be in those tournaments and competing against those guys," Simpson explained Tuesday. "Whether they're better than me or not, I'm not sure. But I'm just a firm believer in doing what I know how to do to improve, and if I do those things, sooner or later I'll either catch up or get to their level or pass them."

So Simpson decided to change his workout routine and shore up the weaknesses in his game. Two runner-up finishes in his first 10 starts of 2011 -- one of which was a playoff loss in New Orleans -- showed he was headed in the right direction.

The payoff, though, has come the last three weeks as Simpson delighted friends and family by winning the Wyndham Championship in his home state of North Carolina, then following up two weeks later by capturing the Deutsche Bank Championship. As a result, he's risen to the top of the FedExCup standings going into this week's BMW Championship, the third leg of the PGA TOUR Playoffs for the FedExCup.

"It's been nice the last three weeks to win a couple times and maybe get in the mix of those great young players," Simpson said almost shyly.

The wins are great but Simpson's overall consistency this year is equally impressive. He's played in 22 events this year and has finished 25th or better in all but five of them. His nine top-10s rank second only to world No. 1 Luke Donald, and he leads the Englishman on the TOUR money list by more than $250,000.

Simpson's individual statistics reflect the overall improvement in his game, as well. He's third in scoring average after ranking 105th last year. He's also added 12 yards in driving distance, risen from 140th to 83rd in driving accuracy and made a quantum leap from 166th to 17th in greens in regulation.

Simpson credits his successful, if somewhat under-the-radar, climb into the game's upper echelon to several things.

One is an adjustment he made in his putting during the PGA Championship. He noticed that he wasn't taking as much time aiming the ball during an actual tournament round as he was on the practice green. Simpson said it was a matter or a second or two, and once he made the change, "I noticed the balls are starting more on line more frequently than they were." A week later when he won the Wyndham Championship, he finished first in Strokes Gained-Putting, gaining 8.411 on the field.

Although he just turned 26 last month, Simpson is also concerned about longevity on TOUR and one of the keys to that is preventing injuries. So last November, for the first time, he started a serious workout regimen under the guidance of a Fort Worth-based company called Back Nine Fitness. The strength added in the gym has translated into more yards on the golf course.

"I figure while I'm young and can handle working out a little harder, I want to do it," Simpson explained. "I think that's been ... 90 percent of the contributing factor to hitting the ball further, and I think the other 10 percent is my technique has just gotten better."

Toward that end, Simpson and his caddy, veteran Paul Tesori, have been using a simple drill designed to keep him from moving his head and body off the ball during his backswing. Watch them on the range and you'll often see Tesori holding a club about an inch behind Simpson's head to keep him more on plane.

"I would kind of sway back, and that would just prevent me from having a good weight transfer through the ball." Simpson explained. "(The drill) has allowed me to stay more centered over the ball, and if I stay more centered my weight transfer through the ball is easier."

Managing expectations -- both positive and negative -- has been another key.

When he won in Greensboro, Simpson knew he was playing well, took the lead after 36 holes and ended up winning by three. The Deutsche Bank Championship was a different story, though, as he worked his way up the leaderboard -- from T27 after the first round to T18 after the second to T7 after the third -- before beating Chez Reavie in a playoff.

"One thing I did learn was it never felt like we were going to win," Simpson said. "I think us golfers lean too much on our feelings because if we hit a great shot, if you stripe it down the first hole, you have a thought, well, I'm going to drive it well today. Last week in Boston ... my attitude wasn't great through the first two rounds, and nothing was really going well.

"To hang in there and just say, if we can play solid (Sunday) and give ourselves a chance (Monday), you never know. And that kind of came to fruition ... when I found myself in a playoff."

After playing four straight weeks, Simpson has come to Cog Hill refreshed after the week's break. He spent some time at home with his wife and their young son, then headed to Pinehurst to play golf with his old caddy and a couple of childhood friends, a tradition they started a year ago. Yes, he knew he was on a hot streak but he also knew he needed to recharge his batteries.

"I knew with a week off my momentum or confidence wouldn't go anywhere," Simpson said.

And if he can ride that into Atlanta as he makes his debut in the TOUR Championship by Coca-Cola, who knows what might happen.

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