PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Webb Simpson never really knew anything else. Like a number of his professional golf colleagues, he got good at the game using a somewhat controversial putting method that nobody ever dreamed would one day be outlawed.
And yet, his success with the anchored putting stroke helped hasten its demise.
He won a major championship at a time when others using variations of anchoring a putter up against their chest or their stomach also did so. Golf’s governing bodies became concerned, and voila, such a method went the way of the gutta percha golf ball.
Although Simpson and others were given more than two years to get used to the change before it was written into law on Jan. 1, 2016, the adjustment proved difficult.
So much so that Simpson, a solid putter who had won four times, became one of its worst.
And that U.S. Open victory seemed a long time ago.
Simpson won the Players Championship on Sunday, cruising to what turned out to be a fairly low-stress win after shooting a 63 on Friday and building a 7-stroke advantage through 54 holes. The victory was his first since the fall of 2013, when he was still using a belly putter.
But as easy as this one appeared, there was really nothing simple about it. Not when you consider how acute the putting problems had become, and the depths to which it impacted his game.
“I didn’t know if he’d ever putt well again,” said Paul Tesori, Simpson’s caddie since 2010. “When you putt that poorly and for that length of time and you play at this level, you can’t hide.”
Simpson had taken on the challenge of ditching his anchored stroke with abandon. He snapped the belly putter — the one he used to win the U.S. Open at the Olympic Club — in two, but keeping it in his trophy case.
Yet the short putter was doing him no favors. He ranked 174th in putting on the PGA Tour in 2015 and 177th in 2016. Frustration mounted.
“You get used to playing at a level that you know you’re capable of, and then you go a year or two years playing below that capability, and it starts to get at you,” Simpson said after earning $1.98-million for his victory. “And I actually think its easier to work hard when you’re playing well. So it made working hard that much harder.
“I just kept telling myself that if I throw in the towel and give up, I will never be successful. But if I stay at it, who knows? And I’m glad I did.”
Paul Tesori, Webb Simpson’s caddy, describes their win at The Players Championship, and where it stacks up against Simpson’s U.S. Open title.
Adam Scott can relate. He, too, has struggled with adapting since the rules change. He won the 2013 Masters using a long putter (Keegan Bradley won the 2011 PGA Championship using a belly putter and Ernie Els won the 2012 Open using a belly putter as well.)
Scott won twice in 2016, but is still without a top-10 finish in nearly a year due to recent putting struggles.
“He was basically back to square one after spending thousands of hours perfecting a perfectly fine method,” Scott said of Simpson.
It was a year ago that Simpson got a tip from former Players champion Tim Clark, who had also used an anchored stroke and was among those who felt the new rule was unnecessary.
When Simpson switched to a conventional putter, he was stubborn about the way he used it, uninterested in other ways to grip it, other lengths. It was Clark who helped him open his eyes to a form of the “claw” grip in which his right hand does not grip the putter in the palm. Like Matt Kuchar, he also putts the shaft up against his left forearm.
“I wasn’t going in a good direction,” Simpson said. “I’m very thankful he gave me that lesson.”
It didn’t click right away, but Simpson noticed a difference. He was more consistent. And the rest of his game came around, too.
In 26 tournaments since the putting tip at last year’s Players, Simpson, 32, missed just a single cut. He improved his world ranking from 65th to 20th. And he had 10 top-10 finishes.
“I think I was too closed-minded and just tried to learn a lot about putting and what’s important,” he said. “So talking to great putters helped [like] Aaron Baddeley and Brandt Snedeker. Had tons of conversations with those guys. I didn’t start better immediately, but it’s what led to using the Kuch-style putter, and it’s what led to me being open to listening to Tim Clark here a year ago.”
Everything came together for Simpson this week. He was first in the field in driving accuracy and Sunday was the first time he hit less than 14 greens in regulation in any round.
And he had just 108 putts, leading the field in strokes gained putting and never needing more than 29 in any round.
“I hope he doesn’t putt too well with that thing up his arm,” Scott joked. “Or they’ll ban it, too.”
Simpson knows those days are past. And he’s got a system that now works.
“It means everything to me,” he said. “I feel like it’s my first win. I never doubted myself, but it’s a long time. There have been some tough moments along the way, but to come here against this field and put up some good numbers the first three days and do what I needed to do today to get it done, I’m so happy.”