NORTON — Fortunately for Webb Simpson, golf doesn’t put much importance on first impressions. Professionals on the PGA Tour have 18 holes per day, 72 holes over a tournament, to convince everyone else that they’ve got enough game to compete.
Simpson, with three victories in the last 13 months, obviously has the necessary skills. But don’t expect to be blown away the first time you see him. Some players ooze style. Not Simpson. If you cut him, he’ll bleed substance.
“The first time I saw Webb hit balls I remember thinking, ‘What have I got myself into?’ ” said Paul Tesori, who has served as Simpson’s caddie since the start of the 2011 season, and will be on the bag at the Deutsche Bank Championship, which starts Friday at TPC Boston. Simpson is the defending champion. “Webb’s just not flashy. He’s unassuming. But I immediately saw that he has the right mind to play great, steady golf. He doesn’t get too down over a bad shot, or a bad break, or a bad stretch, or a bad round. He’s a sneaky good ball-striker, he’s come out stronger whenever he’s met failure, and he’s always got a smile on his face. Plus, he has no weaknesses.”
When Tesori started working for Simpson, at last year’s Sony Open in Hawaii, his new boss was ranked No. 208 in the world, a 25-year-old still looking for his first tour win. Three victories later, only four players are ranked ahead of Simpson: Rory McIlroy, Luke Donald, Tiger Woods, and Lee Westwood. Pretty select company.
Simpson, after coming painfully close with a pair of second-place finishes in 2011, finally broke through at last year’s Wyndham Championship, a sentimental achievement because it came in his native North Carolina, where he still lives. He followed that with a playoff victory at the Deutsche Bank Championship, beating Chez Reavie with a birdie on the second extra hole. Then, most impressively, Simpson captured his first major title, winning this year’s US Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco, going 68-68 on the weekend and beating Graeme McDowell by one shot.
That’s a heavy, life-changing haul in a short time. Ten months according to the calendar, but only 21 tournaments during that span. Very quickly, Simpson was transformed from a decent touring professional trying to find his way to the next big thing, with multiple trophies in the display case, and multiple millions in the bank.
“I never had doubts, and I never had a problem believing,” Simpson said Thursday. “I’ve struggled a little bit with believing in my full potential, and my wife [Dowd] has helped me with that, with believing in me.
“I don’t think I expected to win Wyndham and Deutsche Bank back-to-back like that. But I definitely don’t like putting limits on what we can do out here on tour. I think that paid off winning those two events, and then the US Open, because as soon as you start saying, ‘I’ll take this or I’ll take that,’ you won’t get near there.”
Not much about Simpson’s statistics scream star player. He’s 112th in driving distance, 95th in driving accuracy, 52d in strokes gained putting. It’s natural, perhaps, to wonder how he does it. Some of his peers still do.
“He’s one of the most frustrating golfers I’ve ever played with, because you’re like, gosh, this guy is beating me?” said Scott Stallings, a Worcester native, two-time tour winner, and one of Simpson’s closer friends. “It’s not fancy. He just gets it done, man. Makes putts when he needs to, has one of the most creative short games I’ve ever seen.
“Just because everyone thinks golf should be played a certain way and he plays it his way, I don’t think he really cares about that. I call it Webb’s way. He owns his game, he knows what he’s doing, and he and Paul work really well in giving themselves the best opportunity to win tournaments. He gets it in the hole better than anyone I’ve ever played with, that’d be the best way to describe him.”
Simpson has an easy answer for why he’s become so successful. Allow him to put his chef’s hat on . . .
“It’s kind of like a soup, I like to say. There’s a lot of ingredients,” Simpson said. “I got a veteran caddie in Paul, I began a workout program for the first time in my career, and my swing got better. Put those three things together, and at the same time my confidence has grown every week.
“I think Colin Powell said, ‘Success is not an accident.’ I always think about that because you put in the work, you work hard, you do the little things, the boring things, you go to the gym when you don’t want to, and sooner or later it’s going to pay off.”
It already has. In addition to the three victories, Simpson will play in next month’s Ryder Cup for the first time, an automatic qualifier on the US team, based largely on his US Open win. But winning at Olympic isn’t all he’s done: Simpson has five other top-10 finishes, big reasons he’s 14th on the tour’s money list. He’ll go over the $3 million mark for the season, assuming he makes the cut this week.
It’s already been a magical season, not counting his US Open win. Willow Simpson was born July 28, and has joined her father, mother, and brother James on the road this week.
“Traveling now is a lot harder. We’re packing, it seems, like 30 bags instead of two,” Simpson said. “It’s crazy. My wife and I talk all the time about how two years ago, we were just married and no kids, and now we’ve got two kids. A lot has changed.”
Indeed, it has.