PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Having dominated golf’s strongest field of the season, seized one of the game’s marquee titles and pocketed one of its largest winner’s paydays ($1.98 million) at the Players Championship on Sunday, Webb Simpson saluted his inner circle, calling his victory a "total team” effort. He thanked his wife, his mother, his late father, his caddie, his coach, his trainer ... the roster was long.
As it turns out, the support team was bigger than Simpson knew.
His triumph not only was one for perseverance – the 2012 U.S. Open champion hadn’t won since October 2013 – but one for the anchorers, those PGA Tour brethren who have struggled to meet the challenge of abandoning anchored putting strokes that they had utilized successfully for years. It has been an emotional journey for all. Those who shared Simpson’s plight were pulling hard for him, too.
Simpson and Keegan Bradley (belly putters) and Adam Scott (long putter) won major championships while anchoring, and each was tasked (with other players) to find a new putting method ahead of Jan. 1, 2016, when the U.S. Golf Association and R&A implemented a ban on the anchored stroke. The move proved to be controversial, and the timing behind it made a difficult situation more awkward. The governing bodies announced the future ban in May 2013. That shined a harsh spotlight on those who continued to anchor, perfectly within the rules, subjecting them to a barrage of questioning at each event: What were they going to do?
“That two years before, where they announced they were going to make a change, and until the change, I thought was a horrible situation to be in,” Scott said Sunday at TPC Sawgrass after tying for 11th. “The reaction from some people was, in a silly way, that we were cheating. It is silly; you should take it as that. But it’s not a very nice thing to be looked at, and the vibe on the course every week was people yelling that we were cheating.”
Simpson, influenced heavily by his caddie, Paul Tesori, abandoned his belly putter, which he had used for 11 years, after the 2014 Ryder Cup, giving him extra time to adapt to conventional putting. Before heading to Japan for an event late in 2014, Simpson physically broke his belly putter in half. (Tesori says transitioning early probably cost Simpson, once ranked No. 5 in the world, as much as $4 million in earnings.)
Upon arrival at last year’s Players Championship, Simpson ranked 192nd on Tour in strokes gained putting. He and Tesori were frustrated, and Simpson had not been open to different ideas on his stroke. But a chance meeting on the practice green with Tim Clark, the 2010 Players champion, would turn Simpson’s fortunes.
Clark showed Simpson the right-hand claw grip, shifting a player’s bottom hand from underneath the putter grip to palm down, right thumb under, with two fingers on top as a guide. On Tour, the method dates to when Skip Kendall introduced it to Chris DiMarco in 1995, sparking DiMarco’s career. Already Simpson was running the shaft of his putter up his left arm (arm-lock), a move that top-10 machine Matt Kuchar uses effectively. Simpson liked the feel of his new grip, and he put it into play right away. Tesori calls it the “Kuchar-Clark.” It works. Since that ’17 Players, Simpson has missed one cut in 26 starts and has risen to No. 20 in the Official World Golf Ranking.
“We got to the point after a 2½-year stretch where we did not putt, and we did not know if we’d ever see it again,” Tesori said. “And now that it’s here, we appreciate it more than we ever did. He’s putting better now than he ever did, even in his prime.”
Simpson, 32, said Sunday that he’s now glad that anchoring was banned. He estimates that he averaged “35th to 60th” with the belly putter. At the Players, where he won by four, Simpson led the field in strokes gained putting (at a whopping plus-9.368), improving from ninth to fifth in season stats. He made 455 feet of putts in four days.
“It’s funny how those things happen, but, you know, this is probably the first time I can say I’m glad they banned it,” Simpson said, “because I wouldn’t have ever probably swayed away from the belly putter.”
Still, for Bradley, Scott and Simpson, there was a high emotional price in trying to return to the levels at which they'd played. Bradley and Scott haven’t switched with Simpson’s success, though both putted well last week. Bradley and Scott, a former World No. 1, are fighting to get back into the OWGR’s top 50, with both nudging inside the top 70 this week.
Bradley, 31, Simpson’s former Ryder Cup teammate, used the Kuchar arm-lock style but abandoned it three months ago to putt conventionally. (“I should have stayed,” he said Sunday.) Bradley believes his putting is improving, but it’s a constant struggle. He notched his third top 10 of 2017-18 on Sunday (T-7), despite ranking 200th in strokes gained putting.
“I think what the USGA did was wrong on a lot of levels,” said Bradley, who shared notes and conversations with Simpson on transitioning. “I always personally pull for those guys [others who anchored], because we had something taken away from us. It’s remarkable. We used it, and we all were very good at it.
“To watch Webb do what he’s doing, it is great to see. It’s been tough. You know your game is there … I think I’m playing better than I’ve ever played, but the putting is really holding me back. And I know there’s a club in my house that could stop that – but this is going to make it even sweeter, doing it this way.”
Scott, 37, is 168th in strokes gained putting. He won twice early in 2016 with the short putter. Two weeks ago at the Wells Fargo Championship, he returned to the long putter, separating the top of the grip just slightly off his torso, as Champions Tour players Bernhard Langer and Scott McCarron do. Asked whether Simpson’s victory inspires him, Scott said that it does.
“Absolutely,” he said. “It can be done, for sure. Every one of the guys out here has the ability to do that, and it just takes a lot of hard work and a lot of things to fall into place, and the belief. All that.”
Scott wishes he had made the move to the long putter earlier, after trying it late in 2017 in Australia. There is still a stigma attached to the long putter, and Scott said he didn’t switch earlier out of “being stubborn.”
He added, “For a while, I didn’t have to think about putting. And all of a sudden, I’m thinking about putting. And thinking, for me, is never really a good thing.”
Scott laughed as he said it. On Sunday, with a former anchorer dashing away with one of golf’s top prizes, there was reason to smile.
Jeff Babineau is a former president of the Golf Writers Association of America who has covered golf since 1994, writing for such publications as The Orlando Sentinel, Golfweek and Golf World. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @jeffbabz62