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Best golfer in the world right now? You might be surprised

Webb Simpson putting 2019 Tour Championship
With dramatic improvement in his putting, Webb Simpson returns to his winning ways.

Webb Simpson doesn’t hit it as far or swing as fluidly as so many of the other elite players on the PGA Tour, but he knows how to score and win. And isn’t that what it’s all about?

Rory McIlroy is the most talented golfer and has the most gorgeous swing. Bryson DeChambeau hits it farthest. Dustin Johnson manhandles par 5s. Justin Thomas hits the most impressive iron shots. And Tiger Woods looks as if he can get it up and down from anywhere.

Webb Simpson resembles none of those guys, but he just might be the best player in the world – right now.

Simpson is entered in this week’s Rocket Mortgage Classic at Detroit Golf Club and most certainly will be one of the favorites. Especially after his startling performance two weeks ago at Hilton Head Island, S.C., winning the RBC Heritage by one stroke at 22 under.

He would have played at the Travelers Championship last week but withdrew after a family member tested positive for COVID-19. Simpson since has tested negative and has been cleared to return to the PGA Tour.

The Heritage was the second victory of the 2019-20 PGA Tour season for Simpson, who also won the Waste Management Phoenix Open in February. Plus, he has a runner-up at the RSM Classic, a third-place finish at the Sony Open in Hawaii and two other top-10s in just seven starts.

That resume has propelled the 34-year-old Simpson into No. 6 on the Official World Golf Ranking, down one spot from his career high last week. And it is one more stride away from a two-year stretch in which it looked as if Simpson simply would fall from the list of elite players and join a long list of used-to-bes.

He came out on Tour in 2009 and for most of that time used a belly putter. He was good enough with it to win the 2012 U.S. Open at Olympic Club near San Francisco and played on his first Ryder Cup team that fall.

But in late 2012, the USGA announced that anchored putting strokes would be outlawed starting on Jan. 1, 2016. Simpson, along with Keegan Bradley, Tim Clark and Adam Scott, were the most notable players who would be affected by the ban.

Simpson decided to give up his belly putter starting in 2015 but had second thoughts near the end of 2014 when he was about to travel to Japan for the Dunlop Phoenix. He intended to take the belly putter along. Until he didn’t. He went into his garage, picked up the putter and broke it in half over his knee. Now, he was really on his own.

Using a conventional putter in 2015 and 2016, Simpson was one of the worst putters on the PGA Tour. In 2015, he was 174th in strokes gained putting and 172nd in total putting. The following year, he was hardly better.

In 2017, Simpson adopted the arm-lock method used by Matt Kuchar. At the Players Championship that year, he was given the missing piece of the putting puzzle. Clark suggested to Simpson that he use a claw grip with his right hand.

What had been a millstone transformed into a steppingstone on Simpson’s journey of perseverance from the shadow of the valley back to the pinnacle of the summit.

He won the Players in 2018 and though he didn’t win in 2019, he did everything but, with three runners-up and a third. The win in Phoenix this year sent the signal that Simpson had returned, and the statistics are no less than astounding.

In 2019, he was seventh in total putting, 11th in strokes gained putting and second in scrambling. This year, he is ninth in total putting, 13th in strokes gained putting and sixth in scrambling. Most importantly, he leads the Tour in scoring average, at 68.66.

At Hilton Head, he made putts when it counted. He birdied five of his final seven holes to take his seventh career Tour title. Simpson will be a lock for his fourth Ryder Cup team at Whistling Straits, whether the match is played in late September or postponed until next year, as expected, because of the coronavirus pandemic.

And Simpson, a father of five, won on Father’s Day, also having won the U.S. Open on Father’s Day. This time, however, his father, Sam, would not be watching. He died in 2017 after a long illness.

“I thought a lot about him,” Simpson said that Sunday evening at Hilton Head. “This morning I thought about him, and when I was on the golf course, I thought about him. I started wearing yellow on Sundays in his honor. Yellow is his favorite color. I still feel my dad all around me from memories. He loved golf. He would have loved watching today.”

As for his return to the top of the game, Simpson was characteristically reflective.

“I realized I was just thankful,” Simpson said after winning the RBC Heritage. “I realized I'm not going to take any success out here for granted anymore. It doesn't come easy, and it's a fleeting game. I mean, the best players in the world have struggled from time to time. A lot of times, you don't know when it's coming. The only thing you can do is kind of stay day-to-day and try to prepare and get better.

“But I think that tough couple years did make me just a more thankful golfer when success does come, just because I know how hard it is to be successful out here.”

As for the deceased belly putter, Simpson’s wife, Dowd, convinced him not to throw it away. Instead, both pieces are in the trophy case at the couple’s home in Charlotte, N.C. It will have to scoot over to make room for one more piece of hardware. And this one perhaps comes with the most satisfaction.

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