Lavner: Simpson overcomes elements for Open win
SAN FRANCISCO – Unpredictability seemed to roll in with the marine layer Sunday, setting up even more improbable scenarios at The Olympic Club.
Such as a 54-hole co-leader, one of the game’s ultimate grinders, who didn’t make a birdie on the final day.
A 14-time major champion, one of the game’s premier closers, who plummeted from a share of the 36-hole lead to T-21.
And a 26-year-old Southerner, one of the game’s rising stars, but a man with no experience contending in major championships, who sat next to his wife in an edgy locker room, awaiting the conclusion of a gloomy, misty final round.
An underdog wasn’t crowned this year in the 112th U.S. Open. This wasn’t Fleck over Hogan. It wasn’t Casper over Palmer, or Janzen over Stewart.
It was Webb Simpson over . . . well, everything. The elements. The torturous Lake Course. The enervated competitors. Heck, even his own emotions. That may have been the most compelling theater.
Playing in the fourth-to-last group, Simpson on Sunday signed for his second consecutive 68, posted 1-over 281 and retreated to the players’ locker room, where he and his lovely wife, Dowd, sat in front of a Sony widescreen TV. For 45 minutes, they watched the rest of the NBC telecast. A cameraman was situated no more than a few feet away, eager to document a family in limbo.
During a commercial break, Simpson grabbed a lemon-lime Powerade and bottled water out of the fridge. This Father’s Day evening, he passed the time watching iPhone videos of his 16-month-old son, James, who recently had learned to walk. Those clips always helped calm him down.
On the final hole, in the final group, 2010 U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell had left himself 25 feet to force a playoff. Jim Furyk, the guy without a birdie all day, had only a wedge left into the elevated green at 18, needing to make birdie.
Back in the locker room, Simpson gulped. Furyk’s approach splashed into the bunker. Plugged lie. Bogey.
Back in the locker room, Paul Tesori, Simpson’s caddie, weaved through a few reporters, USGA officials and police officers. He wrapped his arms around both Webb and Dowd, but couldn’t bear to watch. He exited the room almost immediately.
McDowell was on the 18th green, lining up his birdie putt. The feed on TV was delayed about four seconds, so Webb and Dowd first would hear the groan from the crowd . . . or maybe the cheer.
Dowd put her left hand to her mouth.
And McDowell missed left.
“I kinda don’t believe it yet,” Webb said, beaming.
Playing in only his fifth career major, Simpson began the day four shots off the lead, but he promptly bogeyed the second hole to fall even further off the pace. Always a leaderboard-watcher, he glanced at the large man-made board near the green.
“I told him, ‘You’re done; no more,’” Tesori said. “He didn’t look again until the 18th.”
Simpson didn’t need to look. The crowd grew more boisterous with each birdie. First on 6, and then 7, and then 8. When Simpson tacked on another birdie at 10, his fourth in five holes, he had moved within a shot of Furyk’s lead. He parred his remaining eight holes.
More than enough players had their chances to catch him, trying to be the first to post 1-over 281, trying to force an 18-hole playoff Monday. None succeeded.
• Errant off the tee in the final round, McDowell went out in 38 as he tried to conjure up more Northern California magic, after having won the 2010 Open at Pebble Beach. “There’s a mixture of emotions inside me right now -- obviously disappointment, deflation, pride,” McDowell said. “But mostly just frustration, because I hit three fairways today. This is the U.S. Open. You’re not supposed to do that.”
• Furyk, on his most important tee shot of the day, hit an unsightly duck-hook on 16 that bounced around in the cypress trees and led to a bogey, dropping him out of the lead for the first time. The 42-year-old, in search of a second U.S. Open title, never made a birdie during a final-round 74.
• Michael Thompson, the first-round leader, closed with 67 but couldn’t convert a makeable birdie putt on 17. He eventually tied for second.
• Two-time U.S. Open champion Ernie Els bogeyed the par-5 16th, where he missed the green with a wedge, then dropped another shot on the last to finish three back, in solo ninth.
• World No. 3 Lee Westwood, vying for that elusive first major, lost his tee shot in a cypress tree on 5. He never recovered, shooting 73 to finish T-10.
• John Peterson, the 2011 NCAA champion, double-bogeyed No. 16, effectively ending his chances.
• Padraig Harrington briefly jumped into the mix but bogeyed 18 to finish two back.
Simpson thus became the 15th different major winner in a row, the ninth consecutive first-time champion, and a player whose 36-hole position (T-29) was the worst of any eventual U.S. Open winner.
Amid the madness, “One of my thoughts on the back nine was that I don’t know how Tiger has won 14 of these things,” Simpson said. “I couldn’t feel my legs.”
Well, imagine how his pregnant wife felt. She’s 34 weeks along, due in late July or early August -- Webb, in fact, may skip the Open Championship if the dates conflict -- and Olympic is a tough track to walk, even for a person in peak physical condition. “But I never missed a hole,” Dowd said, smiling.
She was speaking on the edge of the 18th green, moments after the trophy presentation, and minutes after a liquored-up fan in a Union Jack snow cap rushed onto the green. The squawking fool was side-swiped by Mike Davis, the executive director of the USGA, and pushed down into a bunker. There, he was corralled by four policemen.
“Enjoy the jail cell, pal!” Simpson said, to the amusement of the crowd.
Later, when asked about the incident, he joked, “I didn’t know if it was part of the deal. I’ve never won a major; I didn’t know what to expect.”
Can you blame him? Few expected this ending on a manic final day.