Hate to be Rude: Simpson’s superstar potential

Caddie Paul Tesori (left) congratulates Webb Simpson after winning the Deutsche Bank Championship.

Caddie Paul Tesori (left) congratulates Webb Simpson after winning the Deutsche Bank Championship.

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And so, just like that, add Webb Simpson to the short list of young players with legitimate superstar potential. It’s just not the two victories in his last three PGA Tour starts. It’s as much about his complete arsenal and an impressive 2011 body of work that reflects continued improvement.

Don’t look now, but the 26-year-old leads in earnings, FedEx Cup points and, perhaps most telling for the future, the all-around statistical category in his third Tour season.

Long a short-game wizard, the Wake Forest graduate has climbed from 70th and 94th in money his first two years largely because of improved driving and, of course, comfort.

Remarkably, thanks to work ethic, a new fitness regimen, more width in his swing and help from his longtime coach, Ted Keigel, and first-year caddie, Paul Tesori, Simpson has made major improvement off the tee from last year: 170th to 17th in total driving, 118th to 40th in distance (increase of 13 yards on average) and 140th to 83rd in accuracy.

We’re also seeing an increase in confidence since he finished second twice this spring. His wonderful mental-physical mix has translated to 17 top-25 finishes in 22 starts and nine top 10s, tied for second on Tour, two behind Luke Donald.

“He’s got the best mind of anyone I’ve ever worked for,” said Tesori, and that’s saying something, since he has looped for Hall of Famer Vijay Singh. “Webb believes himself. He’s about faith. He just doesn’t lose faith.”

The two joined forces last offseason after Simpson’s caddie took a job in Savannah and Sean O’Hair cut loose Tesori. You might say it wasn’t love at first sight when the caddie looked at Simpson’s unconventional, handsy swing.

“It was some of the worst action I’d seen,” Tesori, a former Tour player himself, said laughingly. “I said, ‘Bud, you must have a strong mind (with a swing like that).’ ”

Tesori wasn’t alone. Wake Forest coach Jerry Haas recalls Simpson having a “terrible swing and bad slappy action and terrible grip” when recruiting him. But he watched Simpson, up near a back bunker lip and having to aim way left, blast to about 3 feet from the hole.

“I said, ‘That’s my boy; I’ve got to have him,’ ” Haas said. “He’s always had the ability to turn 5 into 4 and 4 into 3. (He proves) the game of golf starts at the green and goes backwards.”

As a Wake freshman, Simpson’s right fingers moved around on his takeaway. So Haas secretly filmed the hand motion and showed him.

“Who’s that?” Simpson asked.

“It’s you,” the coach said.

He played with the old grip until shooting a couple of scores in the high 70s at the NCAA that season. Afterward, it took Haas a couple of weeks before he finally reached Simpson by telephone.

“Where have you been?” he asked.

“I’ve been changing my grip,” Simpson replied.

Tesori reports the swing is getting better weekly. It follows that Simpson’s status is far different from late last year, when he didn’t secure his Tour card until his penultimate event of the year.

“I’m not taking any illegal drugs or anything,” Simpson cracked when asked to explain the difference.

Simpson has learned at a young age what some never do: The sooner you perfect whatever swing or system that works for you, the sooner you’ll improve as a player.

“I don’t care what other guys are doing,” said Simpson, who rolled in birdie putts on 18 in regulation and the two playoff holes Monday in winning the Deutsche Bank Championship. “We want to do what we know how to do. I got caught up a little bit the last few years on what everybody else was doing.”

Simpson switched to a belly putter his first semester at Wake. He tried it on a lark, found immediate success and hasn’t looked back. Rather, he’s looking up.

“The goal that I set out to accomplish is to be one of the best players in the world, if not the best,” he said.

Simpson’s rise hardly surprises Haas and others in the Wake family.

“Of course I thought he could do this,” Haas said. “He’s a good wedge player, is driving it better and can get up and down out of trouble.”

Travis Wadkins, a Wake teammate of Simpson's for two years, recalls his friend shooting 59 three or four times while in college.

“Some of the shots he pulled off were amazing,” said Wadkins, himself a professional playing the mini-tours. “He’s always had the ability to go low, he’s a magician around the green and he’s a phenomenal putter. So, yeah, we basically saw this coming eventually, for sure.”

• • •

Gary Christian has never played a PGA Tour event. Yet, anyway. He’s headed that way after moving up to fourth in Nationwide Tour earnings upon winning the Mylan Classic the other day.

Understandably, the Englishman called his upcoming graduation to the big tour a “dream come true.”

His success, too, was a victory for bartenders worldwide. Back in his amateur days, when he also served drinks at a pub, he was known as the “Barman from Wallington.”

Cheers.

• • •

Jeff Rude’s “I Hate To Be Rude” column appears on Golfweek.com on Wednesday, the same day as his video show of the same name.

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