Simpson emerging from struggles to contend at Harbour TownHILTON HEAD ISLAND, SC - APRIL 20: Webb Simpson hits his tee shot on the 18th hole during the third round of the RBC Heritage at Harbour Town Golf Links on April 20, 2013 in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)April 20, 2013
HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. -- It feels like a long time ago that Webb Simpson won the U.S. Open.
In some ways, it was.
Three other major champions have been crowned.
Brandt Snedeker has won the FedExCup.
Australia has a Green Jacket.
And Simpson’s family has grown by one.
“It’s so hard on the PGA TOUR to get in contention, because there’s so many good players now,” Simpson said. “When those opportunities come, you hope you play well.”
Through three rounds of the RBC Heritage, Simpson has done that.
On a day that began with three players tied for the lead and a record-tying 91 golfers having made the cut, Simpson had the day’s best score at the end of it.
His 6-under 65 was a career-low at Harbour Town and put him within two of leader Charley Hoffman with 18 holes remaining.
Simpson made a half-dozen birdies, including three in his first six holes to keep pace with Hoffman, and no bogeys while hitting 15 greens in regulation Saturday.
For the week, Simpson ranks second in that statistic, which is a big reason why he’s in contention for just the third time this year. Harbour Town is claustrophobic and boasts some of the tiniest greens on TOUR.
Even when he did miss, Simpson’s game was spot on. After finding greenside bunkers on Nos. 12 and 13, he got up and down to save par both times.
Two holes later, Simpson made his sixth and final birdie of the day, putting him in contention for the first time since February at the Northern Trust Open, where he was within two of the lead on the last day before finishing sixth.
For Simpson, who has just two top 10s this year (and one of those came in match play), the results, or lack thereof, have been attributable, he said, to working out a few kinks in his swing.
“We've been working on the same thing all year,” Simpson said. “We knew where we wanted to get, we just didn't know how to work on it. Once we found out what to work on, everything clicked.”
It wasn’t until this week that it did.
A week after missing the cut at the Masters, Simpson has hit 72 percent of his greens and 74 percent of his fairways, ranking 11th in the field.
Despite those numbers, it's not a given that Simpson will be slipping on a different jacket -- a tartan one -- Sunday night.
Though he hit just eight greens on Saturday, Hoffman made five birdies and zero bogeys after just 21 putts. In all, he’s taken just 73 putts for the week, fewest of anyone in the field.
Also, 31 of 44 third-round leaders have gone on to win here, including last year’s winner Carl Pettersson.
Not that Hoffman has always had success here.
Prior to last year, he struggled with Harbour Town’s tight fairways.
“I wasn't mature enough to play this golf course,” he admitted. “I didn't understand how to play it. I guess I would get frustrated when I hit the fairway and didn't have a shot at the green.
“Once you learn what side of the fairway you need to hit or the green you need to hit, you have a good advantage being a good driver of the golf ball.”
Having won a U.S. Open, Simpson knows all about that.
A few others here do, too.
There are 11 players within five shots of Hoffman’s lead entering the final round. Among them: Graeme McDowell, who has also the experience of a major championship behind him.
And it was only last month that Kevin Streelman, who is just a stroke behind Simpson, won in Tampa.
But for Simpson, it’s all about moving forward and taking that next step, which he has the opportunity to do for the first time in a long time.
“It feels like a good time ago,” Simpson said of his victory at The Olympic Club, his last on TOUR. “This year I just haven’t gotten in contention enough. We grow as golfers when we have experience. I just hadn't gotten a ton of experience in those final couple of groups on Sunday. I’m still learning.”
Sunday, he’ll have his best chance yet to show what he has learned.