News & Opinion

Stanley, Simpson regain old form just in time

ATLANTA – The PGA Tour’s finale is where the wave of young players dominating the game are supposed to steal the show. At least, that’s what it says in the script I swiped from the NBC satellite truck.

One round into the Tour Championship, the young guns are stealing the show. Except they’re the young guns from 2012. 

Re-introduce yourself to Webb Simpson, your 2012 U.S. Open champ at Olympic Club, and Kyle Stanley, who bounced back from a traumatic 72nd-hole loss at Torrey Pines in 2012 to get his emotional first Tour win the next week, in Phoenix.

Simpson and Stanley were going to have big careers. Maybe not as big as Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas are going to have, but big. It’s funny how golf doesn’t follow the script, isn’t it? Simpson and Stanley are newly successful reclamation projects now, which is a good reminder when the hype buzzing around today’s young stars gets too thick, as it sometimes does.

Simpson’s five-year exemption for winning the Open has run out. He fought just to get back to East Lake Golf Club for the Tour Championship. Thursday, he shot 66 and tied for second, two shots behind Stanley (scores: http://bit.ly/2wE1lpy).

“I’m definitely way more thankful to be here than I was the four years in a row I came here before,” said Simpson, 32, who’d been a staple on two Ryder Cup and two Presidents Cup teams. “It’s hard to get here. The competition gets better every year, and guys are hungrier every year. Next season starts my 10th season, so I’m not that young anymore.”

Simpson’s slide accelerated in the wake of the anchored-stroke ban. He used a belly putter, and during the summer before the ban took effect, on Jan. 1, 2016, was confident that he would be able to adjust to playing without it. That’s not how it worked. You don’t have to miss many putts to go from contending for victories to battling to make the cut. 

Simpson, an All-American at Wake Forest, won four titles before the ban. He hasn’t won since. This season, he arrived at East Lake 16th on the points list. He finished second in Phoenix, third at Wyndham and is showing signs of being ready to win.

“I was very down on myself,” Simpson said. “I made four cup teams in a row and won a major championship, and all of a sudden two years goes by and nothing happens. I was just trying to put the puzzle back together. I haven’t figured it out, but I am definitely moving in a better direction. The reason I haven’t won is because I haven’t been able to put together four days of good ball-striking. But I have seen improvement.” 

Stanley, 29, was a collegiate star at Clemson, across the country from his hometown of Gig Harbor, Wash., near Seattle. He was known for his Vijay Singh-like penchant of pounding balls on the range. One reason why he was attracted to Clemson was that it had a lit range where he could hit golf balls at night.

He turned it around this year with some good finishes, including a tie for fourth at The Players Championship, and then a victory at the Quicken Loans National. This is Stanley’s first appearance at East Lake. In 2012, he was 31st on the FedEx Cup points list after the BMW Championship and didn’t play in the finale.

Stanley leads the PGA Tour in greens hit in regulation, and he ranks 13th in driving accuracy. He’s a precision player. He has battled the putter, too, but he didn’t have problems Thursday when he birdied four holes in a row on the front side en route to 64.

He is glad to be here, finally, and have his career back on the upswing.

“Emotionally, it can be a bit of a roller coaster,” Stanley said. “Golf is unique where if you’re struggling, it may take quite a while to get back into form. When things are going well, you can put a year or two together. That’s golf.”

The tour’s current under-25 stars should take note. And maybe take a deep breath this weekend.

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: gvansick@aol.com; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle