By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM
ARDMORE, Pa. -- As Webb Simpson finished the final hole of his U.S. Open title defense, Phil Mickelson was about to tee off in the final group of the day.
What a difference a year makes. Simpson walked over to Mickelson and his playing partner Hunter Mahan, who trails the big lefthander by one.
"I just told him to go out there and have fun and hopefully one of those guys can win it," Simpson said. "But a lot of the guys at the top I know well and I'm not really pulling for anybody in particular. But I told them to go have a good day and hopefully they play well."
Simpson, who closed with a 72 that included a string of three straight birdies, said he thinks Mickelson is playing so well he will be tough to beat. Not to mention, Mickelson already has five runner-up finishes at the U.S. Open so he's been in the hunt before.
"I don't think many guys could have flown overnight and played as well as he did the first round, but I know it would mean a lot for him to win," Simpson said. "I think this is the one that he really wants. So hopefully he plays well, and I think it's going to be tight until the end no matter what."
Webb Simpson opened his U.S. Open title defense with a solid 71.
By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM
ARDMORE, Pa. -- Webb Simpson proved to be a quick study when he won last year's U.S. Open in just his second start.
The most important lesson he learned at the Olympic Club was the value of patience. And he needed it during a first-round 71 that started late Thursday afternoon and bled over into Friday morning.
Simpson was 2 under when play was suspended by darkness after birdies on his third and fourth holes. But he made three bogeys on the back nine to finish 1 over, which left him four behind Phil Mickelson.
Still, Simpson wasn't too disappointed. He's already in better position than he was a year ago at this juncture when he trailed Michael Thompson by six strokes.
"I think you'll hear guys talk about this all week, but this course never lets up," Simpson said. "Even 13, it had the most birdies yesterday, you still got to think, because you could still mess it up.
"For me it's more the case of just being patient. It's a long week and hopefully I'll keep playing solid."
Simpson admitted he was more nervous on the first tee Thursday than he was 365 days ago.
"Just because expectation and all that," Simpson said. "But luckily the first hole is not too challenging and I played a really good solid round. Dropped a couple this morning, but overall happy with my start.
"And that's all you kind of want to do on a Thursday at the U.S. Open."
ARDMORE, Pa. -- Defending U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson analyzed his chances to win a second straight title at Merion Golf Club.
MORE SIMPSON VIDEO
By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM
ARDMORE, Pa. -- Webb Simpson, who is seeking to become the first man in 24 years to successfully defend his U.S. Open title, has already changed his practice schedule three times this week.
Thanks, Mother Nature. Isn't playing in a major championship hard enough without being battered by rain?
The worst came Friday when more than 3 inches fell on Merion Golf Club. The course was closed on Saturday, then reopened on Sunday before nearly 2 more inches fell on Monday. Hence, Simpson's scramble when he's trying to maintain the delicate balance of conserving energy versus preparation.
"The plan was to play nine Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and just practice Tuesday," Simpson said. "And then we went to nine Sunday, 18 Monday, nine Wednesday. And now yesterday got rained out. I'm going to play nine today, 18 tomorrow. You've got to adapt to the weather."
Caddies like Simpson's looper, Paul Tesori, and Bones Mackay, who totes Phil Mickelson's bag, become even more important during a week like this. They'll spend hours walking the fairways and charting the greens even when their bosses aren't around.
"I'm going to play the back eight today," Simpson said. "If my caddie and I feel that we got all the work done that we need to get done, then we'll not play the back tomorrow. He's out there now. It is tough. My fifth year on TOUR only and I'm still having a time of trying to figure it out, what's best."
Those players who came to get a look at Merion over the last month -- Adam Scott, Tiger Woods and Graeme McDowell, to name a few -- may have a bit of an edge. Although given the rain that has fallen and the 80 percent chance for more on Thursday, the early-birds won't have seen Merion in the same kind of conditions they'll find this week.
"I played the golf course last Wednesday, which has proved kind of invaluable now, I guess," said McDowell, adding that he flew in Monday hoping to get in 18 holes late that afternoon.
With the torrential rain, though, McDowell was out of luck. His plans to play 36 holes before the start of the championship are long gone. The 2010 U.S. Open champion is now looking at nine on Tuesday afternoon and another on Wednesday.
"I've certainly tapered back my practice schedule the next couple of days," McDowell said. "... I just feel like the golf course is going to change so much day-by-day, if we get the weather that's forecast, a little bit of dry weather."
By Brian Wacker, PGATOUR.COM
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- The final pairing of Tiger Woods and Sergio Garcia tees off at 2:40 p.m. on Saturday. Here's a closer look at each of them, plus who and what else to watch for this afternoon at TPC Sawgrass.
Webb Simpson (1:30 p.m. ET): The reigning U.S. Open champion seemed to turn the corner at Hilton Head, where he finished second after losing in a playoff. This week, he's third in fairways hit and enters Saturday five back.
Jason Dufner (1:30 p..m ET): He had six birdies and just one bogey in the second round and is one of the best ball-strikers in the game. He also finished sixth here two years ago.
Zach Johnson (1:50 p.m. ET): The last four finishes for Johnson here: T32, T22, T12, T2. See the trend? A couple late bogeys on Friday hurt, but Johnson is still in the mix four back.
Adam Scott (1:50 p.m. ET): Playing for the first time since his Masters victory, Scott is in position to go after his second PLAYERS title (he won here in 2004). He's just four shots back.
Hunter Mahan (2 p.m. ET): After struggling in his last few starts, Mahan has turned it around here, hitting 75 percent of his greens in regulation.
Matt Kuchar (2 p.m. ET): No player has ever won this tournament two years in a row. After a 66 Friday, Kuchar has a chance and enters the third round just four shots back.
Ryan Palmer (2:20 p.m. ET): The Texan is playing with a heavy heart after a longtime friend was killed in a car accident Thursday night. He's wearing the initials "CA" on his hat in honor of him.
Henrik Stenson (2:20 p.m. ET): The 2009 champion is in contention again after making two eagles in the second round (on the par-5 second and ninth holes). When he won here four years ago, he shot a final-round 66.
Lee Westwood (2:30 p.m. ET): The Englishman has finished fourth, fifth and sixth here. All that's missing is a win. He's the only player without a bogey through the first two rounds.
Tiger Woods (2:40 p.m. ET): It's been a dozen years since Woods has won here, but he said all facets of his game are clicking right now and it's showed so far with his best 36-hole start in his history here.
Sergio Garcia (2:40 p.m. ET): Like Woods, Garcia has won here before (in 2008), but he's struggled at times playing alongside the world No. 1 with five his last six rounds in the 70s when the two have been paired.
By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- Webb Simpson's wife Dowd was listening to her husband lament his lack of success on the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass.
Simpson, who grew up playing a Pete Dye golf course like the Stadium, had made four previous PLAYERS Championship starts, playing a total of 10 rounds and making just one cut. He's never broken 70 here, either, and he has a hard time pinpointing what's held him back because he says the course fits his eye.
"It was a golf course that I've always loved; I've just never played well," Simpson said. "... At the beginning of the week my wife was telling me that she thinks I have nothing to lose. It's not like I built up any pressure on myself to play well here.
"So that's what I did here today, and it feels great to finally breakthrough with a good round here."
That good round was a bogey-free 67 that left Simpson tied for fourth, four strokes off the pace set by the red-hot Roberto Castro, who shot 9 under in the morning before the the wind picked up. Also shooting 67s were Casey Wittenberg, Hunter Mahan, Steve Stricker, Ryan Palmer and Tiger Woods.
"It was playing a lot harder with the wind and the greens drying out," Simpson said. "But the scores were so good in the morning I knew I had to go out and try to make as many birdies as I could to save the golf tournament."
Simpson, who says he has a "special place" in his heart for Pete Dye, lost a playoff on one of the legendary designer's courses three weeks ago. Graeme McDowell beat him on the first extra hole but that runner-up finish was his third of the season, and Simpson knew his game was headed in the right direction.
"My confidence is high," Simpson said. "... It was there for the taking I felt like. It was just up to myself to try to get out of the way and try to just put together a round knowing that I've been working hard and working on the right stuff, and, fortunately, that's what happened."
Simpson was solid tee-to-green, hitting 11 fairways and 14 greens in regulation. He also had 27 putts, including seven one-putts on the front nine where he made four birdies.
"I think you've got to be patient and be smart," Simpson said when asked about his strategy. "You look at the guys that have won, and they're the guys that are on the fairway. Today fortunately for me everything was working well, but I think the most important thing was getting the ball on the fairway."
By Brian Wacker, PGATOUR.COM
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- No one has ever successfully defended at THE PLAYERS Championship, where Matt Kuchar will begin his quest to become the first to do so this afternoon.
With pristine conditions -- sunny skies, hardly a breath of wind -- scoring has been good so far in the opening round at TPC Sawgrass. Will it continue? Here is a look at who and what to watch for this afternoon.
Lee Westwood (1:18 p.m. ET): The Englishman has knocked on the door a few times here -- most recently in 2010 when he was in contention going into Sunday before shooting 74 to finish fourth. He also finished fifth and sixth in 1998 and 1999 and given his ball-striking abilities should be a factor again.
Phil Mickelson (1:28 p.m. ET): As difficult as this tournament -- or Mickelson -- is to predict, Lefty has been largely consistent if nothing else since his win here in 2007. He's finished in the top 25 every other year the last five and for his career has eight top 25s in the event.
Webb Simpson (1:28 p.m. ET): The reigning U.S. Open champion admitted to a lack of confidence earlier this season. Then he finished second at Hilton Head, where he lost in a playoff. He's missed three of four cuts here, however.
Sergio Garcia (1:39 p.m. ET): The 2008 champion (he also finished second the year before) has just one finish in the top 20 since, but he has played well this year with three top 10s. His ball-striking should work well here, but with Garcia it all comes down to how well he putts.
Luke Donald (1:39 p.m. ET): The former world No. 1 finished sixth last year and tied for fourth the year before with all of last last eight rounds and 11 of his last 12 on the Stadium Course at par or better.
Tiger Woods (1:49 p.m. ET): For all his accomplishments, Woods has won THE PLAYERS just once, in 2001. Though he has three wins this season, he has just one top 10 here since that lone victory a dozen years ago.
Matt Kuchar (1:49 p.m. ET):The defending champion has finished in the top 15 in three of the last four years and in 2004 he tied for 16th. This season, Kuchar has four top 10s, including a win.
Brandt Snedeker (1:49 p.m. ET): He was admittedly exhausted after being in contention at the Masters and subsequently missed the cut in Hilton Head. He was also one of the hottest players in the game before getting injured in February. Snedeker has struggled here, missing the cut each of the last four years.
Webb Simpson finished fourth in last year's Wells Fargo Championship.
By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Webb Simpson's caddy Paul Tesori usually gets the Mercedes-Benz reserved for players competing in the Wells Fargo Championship.
After all, Simpson practically lives within walking distance of the Quail Hollow Club. This week, though, Simpson has pulled rank and taken the courtesy car -- but at least he's loaned Tesori the family wheels.
Of course, a win on Sunday would ensure both get the luxury rides next year since tournament officials reserve one for the winning caddy, as well. And after a fourth-place finish on his home course a year ago and that playoff loss to Graeme McDowell two weeks ago at the RBC Heritage, Simpson feels comfortable and ready to compete.
"I think I'm doing things better now than I did last year," he said. "But this is a funny game, so a lot of times your results won't show what you're actually doing. I came into this tournament last year, and I didn't play great at The Masters, didn't play great at Hilton Head and I had a great week.
"Graham and I both missed the cut by one at Augusta and we got into a playoff. So that's why I try not to look too much into the results because you get a guy who wins one week and misses the cut the next, and it's such a funny game."
Six weeks from now, Simpson will head to Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pa., to defend his U.S. Open title, the third win of the 27-year-old's career. He admits he signs a few more autographs -- adding that now the fans actually know who he is -- but says that increased recognition is basically the only way his life has changed.
"When it comes to golf, I think it's just made me more confident," Simpson said. "I haven't won since then, but I feel that I'm getting better. That is my goal always, I tell you guys all the time. My favorite thing so far is being announced as the U.S. Open champion. ... So that's been kind of fun to hear."
That said, the U.S. Open title -- or any major, for that matter -- does come with financial opportunities. Simpson said he and his agent looked at how the offers meshed with his brand and tried to balance the commitments with his desire to spend as much time with his wife and two young children as possible. The former Wake Forest All-American also talked with older players about how they handled such success.
"If you win a major, if you play well, if you're top 20 in the world, you have opportunities to do whatever you really want to do around the world," Simpson said. "So it's just a matter of how much am I willing to be away from home? That's kind of how I look at it.
"Lot of guys told me if you're going to travel and do things whether it's tournaments or corporate deals, do it when they're young. They don't really know that you're gone for a week compared to a day, so I'm still learning.
"But I know one thing, I'll never regret in ten years from now not taking a deal when it meant I got to be home with my kids. So that's what I try to remember."
Webb Simpson was sure that his playoff birdie attempt was going to fall, but it didn't. (Lecka/Getty Images)
By Brian Wacker, PGATOUR.COM
HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. -- Webb Simpson was to the right of the 18th green at famed Harbour Town's finishing hole, 34 feet from the hole, the RBC Heritage hanging in the balance.
"I never thought I made a putt more than that birdie putt," Simpson said. "It was in. With a foot to go, it was in the left side."
Only it wasn't.
Even Graeme McDowell thought the putt by Simpson was better than the resulting outcome: A 7-footer coming back to extend the playoff.
Simpson missed the next one, too, and McDowell was winner, having already tapped in for par. Afterward, McDowell told Simpson he hit a better putt than the result showed.
"Coming back, that was a hard putt, because by the grain and the wind it's supposed to break," Simpson said. "But the regulation putt didn't break. So I was kind of stuck with, 'What do I do?' I tried to play it left center. It broke."
And with it went Simpson's best opportunity to win since his U.S. Open victory at The Olympic Club last summer.
Still, it was a step in the right direction for Simpson, who has barely contended anywhere this season.
He arrived at Harbour Town low in confidence. He left feeling positive about where he's headed.
"I just stayed true to the process of what we've been working on," he said. "My wife and I had multiple conversations this week just about my confidence, how I can become more confident as a player."
Only nine months ago, he was on top of the golf world after having won his first career major championship. But managing the whirlwind since hasn't always been easy even if Simpson has tried to make it so.
"I understand how some guys it puts pressure on them," he said. "But I try never to do that to myself. One of my friends, (author) Eric Metaxas said when he wrote his big book Bonhoeffer he didn't feel like he was a better writer, but all of a sudden he's world famous.
"I kind of felt that way at the U.S. Open. I won a major, but it didn't change me that much as a player."
On a windswept day at Harbour Town, it was the closest Simpson looked to the player he was when he won last summer.
Despite three bogeys in the middle of his final-round 71, Simpson also made three birdies, including one on the difficult 12th, where he stuck his approach to 5 feet.
Only 20 players were at par or better amid sustained winds of 20-25 mph and gusts as high as 40. Simpson was one of them.
"My caddie and I called 18 holes today 18 acts, as if we were in a play, just because you really cannot think ahead out there," he said. "It's as hard as we'll ever play."
The wind affected putts, too.
A few times Simpson had to step away from his ball. Once it even moved as he stood over it on the green. A change in the rules, however, didn't lead to a penalty, unlike in New Orleans last year when he was penalized for the same thing.
On Simpson's final putt, it sailed past the right side, getting caught in the wind, he said.
"It was tough," Simpson said. "Putting is so hard because you've got to play, break, grain, wind."