Defending RBC champion Webb Simpson uses a well-balanced game to succeed
April 14, 2021
By Justin Ray, 15th Club for PGATOUR.COM
- April 14, 2021
- Webb Simpson ranks 13th in Strokes Gained: Putting this season. (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
An image from the tournament practice area last week at Augusta National Golf Club entertainingly fused together two generations of stars on the PGA TOUR.
There, 2000 Masters champion Vijay Singh, known as one of the most diligent workers of his generation, momentarily stopped his range work to watch Bryson DeChambeau wail on drives with ferocious abandon. The analytically-driven approach DeChambeau has taken in regard to training, strength, speed and strategy helped him to a U.S. Open victory last fall.
In a sport seemingly more and more concerned with gaining club head speed and length off the tee, a different past U.S. Open champion has become an outlier among the world’s top-ranked players.
In 2020, Webb Simpson won the Byron Nelson Award, given to the player with the lowest adjusted scoring average that season. He did it despite ranking outside the top-100 in driving distance – 107th to be precise. It marked the second-lowest driving distance ranking by a season leader in scoring average since 1990. Only Luke Donald, who ranked 147th in distance in 2011, had a lower mark in that statistic, in that span, on his way to winning the Nelson Award.
Of the 40 players to finish in the top 10 in scoring average on the PGA TOUR over the previous four seasons, only one player has ranked outside the top 100 in driving distance that specific season. That’s Simpson, in each of the previous three PGA TOUR campaigns. Nobody else is even close – Jordan Spieth’s ranking of 75th in 2016-17, comes nearest.
The defending champion at this week’s RBC Heritage, Simpson is on pace to do it again in 2020-21. The world No. 9 is ninth on TOUR in scoring average, but 146th in average distance off the tee. Simpson is currently averaging 3.4 yards less off the tee than the TOUR average and is nearly thirty full yards behind distance leader DeChambeau.
Lowest Driving Distance Rank - Players in Top-10 in Scoring Average Previous 4 PGA Tour Seasons Distance Rank Scoring Average Rank 2018-19 Webb Simpson 145 3 2017-18 Webb Simpson 117 4 2019-20 Webb Simpson 107 1 2016-17 Jordan Spieth 75 1
So where does Simpson gain his strokes against the competition? The short answer: everywhere else on the golf course.
Approach Play Prowess
Only three players ranked in the top 25 on the PGA TOUR in Strokes Gained: Approach every season from 2015 through 2020 – Hideki Matsuyama, Paul Casey and Simpson. In 2019-20, Simpson hit more than 70% of his greens in regulation for the first time in his career.
Simpson’s ability to convert on approach opportunities with his wedges is among the best in the sport today. Over the last six PGA TOUR seasons, there are more than 150 players with 300 or more approach shots from 50-125 yards. Of that group, Simpson ranks fifth in average score to par per chance, at -0.21. He is just two-one-hundredths of a stroke behind the leader in that statistic, Jon Rahm.
Strengths and Balance
While Simpson has flashed strong approach play consistently over the last several seasons, it’s far from the only reason he is among the best players in the world. Simpson essentially does everything well.
Let’s look at the top 20 players in Strokes Gained: Total from last season on the PGA TOUR. As you might expect, many players see their biggest advantages come from one, or two, particular sets of skills. For example, Collin Morikawa ranked 14th on the PGA TOUR last season in Strokes Gained: Total. Seventy-two percent of his strokes gained came from approach shots alone. Matsuyama, who ranked 17th in Strokes Gained: Total, also made more than 70% of his gains with his approach play.
On the flipside, Matt Fitzpatrick, who ranked 16th in Strokes Gained: Total, gained 76.5% of his strokes on putts and shots around the green. Patrick Reed followed a similar trend, gaining 70.7% of his strokes in the same manner.
That brings us back to Simpson, and the balance within his game. Of those top 20 players in Strokes Gained: Total in 2019-2020, only one player gained more than 40% or more of his strokes on approach shots – and 40% of more of his strokes on putts and shots around the green combined: Simpson.
No statistical analysis of Simpson should go without noting his unbelievable improvement on the greens after initially struggling post-anchor ban. As recently as 2016, Simpson was a dismal 177th on TOUR in Strokes Gained: Putting. That season, he made less than 63% of his putts from 4-8 feet. For contrast, TOUR leader that season Kevin Kisner made nearly 77% of his putts from that range.
Fast forward five years, and Simpson has become one of the best putters on TOUR. This season, he ranks 13th in Strokes Gained: Putting – the fourth consecutive season he has ranked in the top 15. Not only is Simpson the only player currently to hold that distinction, nobody else has even ranked that highly in more than two of those seasons.
Simpson is proof that even in today’s game, a player can excel with just TOUR-average distance off the tee.