SAN FRANCISCO — Neither rain nor sleet could stop Webb Simpson on Sunday from his appointed rounds as theU.S. Open golf champion.
Simpson’s victory was achieved on a day of spine-tingling chills here, and we’re talking about fog and mist and the cold spectators, not his golf. This 112th U.S. Open will be remembered for many things, including Simpson’s mid-round run of four birdies in five holes, as well as the fact that this major golf event used to be played in summer.
To be clear, it was summer in the rest of California, just not on this oceanside range of hills and valleys known as the Olympic Club and serving as a giant suction cup for fog.
Simpson, of course, could not care less. He won’t even recognize immediately that, after the bookmakers ponder what he did here in windshield-wiper heaven, he will become an overwhelming favorite to win this year’s British Open.
The drama was like the weather, dripping to the end.
Simpson finished at one over par and three groups ahead of the 54-hole leaders, the twosome of Graeme McDowell and Jim Furyk. Simpson had entered the day four behind and had stirred little interest until he birdied Nos. 6, 7, 8 and 10.
Furyk was looking unbeatable. He blinked once with a bogey on No. 6, but his round had a jaw-set look of determination about it. Challengers kept falling off around him. His game is, and always has been, a tee-to-green-to-cup direct march, with minimal emotion and infrequent mistakes. He is like the conservative driver at the Indianapolis 500 who steers through all the wreckage flying around him and ends up drinking the milk. That approach got him a U.S. Open title in 2003 and, at age 42, has produced more than $50 million in winnings.
McDowell was a good foil to this script. He, too, had won a U.S. Open, two years ago at Pebble Beach, and his go-for-it style brought anticipation of a nice afternoon of golfing yin and yang. But he yanged four bogeys on the front nine while Furyk kept yinning along, and the emerging story line seemed to be how consistently Furyk kept navigating away from the rocks and shallows.
And when he made an amazing par save on No. 12, with a 35-foot putt, there seemed to be an inevitability about what would happen. That was especially the case because Simpson, having worked his way toward the top of the leaderboard, kept standing over putts that would give him a piece of the lead and sliding them past.
That certainly was understandable.
Simpson is 26 years old, a Wake Forest All-American, who went to school and played golf there on an Arnold Palmer scholarship. He didn’t even get his tour card until qualifying school in 2009 and, while making a big splash last year with two wins and a second-place finish on the PGA Tour money list, was playing in only his fifth major.
He prepared for this U.S. Open by going on a golf outing with a bunch of buddies last week. After he made a bogey Sunday on No. 5, his caddie told him to avoid looking at the scoreboard the rest of the way, and he said he didn’t, until his final putt dropped on No. 18.
But he knew he was in the mix.
“The fans kept telling me,” he said, adding, “I didn’t feel my legs for the entire back nine.” He also said, “I probably prayed more those last three holes than I’ve prayed my whole life.”
The Furyk machine dropped a piston on the tee box on No. 16. He ducked-hooked his drive like a 20-handicapper, and despite scrambling well from behind a tree, he couldn’t save this par. Simpson had the lead, never to relinquish it.
Furyk said that he, and many other players, were surprised and confused about what to hit when they got to No. 16 and saw the tee about 100 yards forward.
“I did the best, and worst, job of handling it,” Furyk said. “I have no one to blame but myself.”
Simpson’s approach shot to No. 18 settled in the deep rough along the right side of the green. After he looked at his chip shot from every angle, he got it up and out to four feet and made the par putt. He was the leader in the clubhouse. All that was left was to wait.
Suddenly, rather than Furyk, McDowell was the one providing the dramatics. He birdied No. 17 while Furyk could only manage par-five on one the few opportunity holes on the course. That meant McDowell could tie Simpson with a birdie at No. 18 and send the tournament into an 18-hole Monday playoff. When the Irishman hit it to 24 feet, the huge crowd on the hills in the natural amphitheater around No. 18 had the place rocking and rolling. It is amazing how much applause can be generated by mittens.
But McDowell missed well left. “That putt, it was weird,” he said. “I hit that putt in practice and it bumped left and then moved to the right of the hole. It didn’t do that today.”
Simpson had won the U.S. Open in a tough way — watching on TV. He and pregnant wife Dowd retreated to a corner of a locker room and stole looks at the TV while also watching home videos of their young son James.
“I just wanted to get away somewhere quiet with my wife,” Simpson said. “I never really wrapped my mind around being the winner of the U.S. Open.”
But he was, and with that comes the awards ceremony. At this one, a fan appeared to get rowdy and was subdued by none other than Mike Davis, U.S. Golf Assn. executive director. The fear of disruption may have been incorrect. There was a decent chance the guy was just trying to take a shortcut back to his warm car.