COMMENTARY | What was so surprising about Webb Simpson's opening round 5-under-par 67 at the Players Championship was how long it took for him to post a decent score at TPC Sawgrass.
In four previous Players appearances, he had three missed cuts and a 69th place finish. Simpson had never broken 70 before Thursday's five-birdie, no-bogey trip around the visually intimidating Pete Dye design.
Those past showings could be outliers for a player usually right at home on Pete Dye courses. Simpson lost in a playoff to Graeme McDowell three weeks ago at the RBC Heritage, his third top 14 finish in the last four years over the Dye-designed Harbour Town Golf Links. He also learned the game on a Dye layout, the Country Club of Landfall in Wilmington, North Carolina.
Simpson says he likes TPC Sawgrass even if it hasn't showed up in his play.
"I grew up playing a Pete Dye golf course… so I've always had a special place in my heart for Pete Dye," he said after a round that had him tied for fourth, four shots behind leader Roberto Castro. "But I think similar to Hilton Head, you just kind of navigate yourself around this golf course one shot at a time."
The difference Thursday was accurate navigation off the tee. Simpson hit 11 of 14 drives in the short grass, a vast improvement for a player that struggles to find fairways. The 27-year-old ranks 116th on the PGA Tour in driving accuracy and has never ranked better than 92nd in five years as a pro.
Finding fairways and 14 of 18 greens gave Simpson plenty of birdie chances, which is where he makes hay. Simpson was third in birdies per round in his breakthrough season of 2011 and second last year in a season highlighted by his U.S. Open win at the Olympic Club. His scoring pace is off a bit so far in 2013 but that could change this week.
"I saw other scores were low, and so that put me more in a mindset of trying to be aggressive, trying to make birdies and stay in the golf tournament,'' Simpson said of his hot start. That aggressiveness almost cost him on the par-3 13th when his tee shot caromed off a railroad tie but propitiously landed on the green rather than in the water.
The near-miss at Hilton Head could be the springboard that sends the Wake Forest grad back into the winner's circle. A pep talk from wife Dowd about how he has nothing to lose with a disappointing track record at the Players can't hurt either.
"I feel like I've been playing well now for a few weeks, and we had a good practice Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday so I expected to play well," Simpson said. "But again, I didn't put that much pressure on myself to do that because I've never played well here."
Few tour players have had more chances to win over the last three years than Simpson. His 22 top 10 finishes since the start of 2011 are second only to Luke Donald. In addition to his three wins, he has lost three tournaments in playoffs.
A Players victory would continue Simpson's elevation into the game's elite. And it would provide validation for his seemingly out-of-nowhere U.S. Open win.
"My confidence is high," he said in concluding his post-round comments. "It feels good [heading into the second round]."
I'm betting it won't take Simpson another 10 rounds to break 70 again at Sawgrass.
Mark McLaughlin has reported on the PGA Tour for the New York Post, FoxSports.com, Greensboro News & Record, and Burlington (N.C.) Times-News. He is a past member of the Metropolitan Golf Writers Association. Follow him on Twitter @markmacduke.
- Sports & Recreation
- Webb Simpson
- TPC Sawgrass
- Pete Dye