Pros advice

Putting woe to Players champion: How Simpson clawed his way back to the top

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The game has been a struggle since the anchoring ban but, thanks to a tip from a fellow Players champion, Webb Simpson is back.

When the anchoring ban came in at the start of 2016 Webb Simpson fell very neatly into the bracket of superstar players whose progress looked likely to be checked. The American had spent all of his professional career – which included four wins and that US Open win in 2012 – with the belly putter and now there would have to be changes.

Simpson finished the 2016 season in 177th for Strokes Gained on the greens.

And then, a year ago at Sawgrass, he had a chat with Tim Clark and Simpson was introduced to the claw grip. He had already gone to the Matt Kuchar method of anchoring the shaft against his right arm, now he added the Clark claw ingredient to the mix, notably a hybrid of two Players champions.

“I tried it. I liked it. It felt pretty awkward. Come Thursday I warmed up with it, and it felt pretty good, and last year, especially the first two days, was the best I had putted in a long time,” said Simpson.

“So, I’m really thankful that he was here that day and thought to himself he should say something. I wasn’t going in a good direction. It was a couple years of struggle up and down, but you know, I’m very thankful that he gave me that lesson. I’m thankful that I’ve put together a year of pretty solid putting. That was the missing link.”

On Friday he needed his putter only 23 times, rolling in 142 feet of putts, in tying the Sawgrass course record of 63.

When Simpson, who was part of the all-star American Walker Cup side at Co Down in 2007, captured the US Open he looked set to be one of the new poster boys for the game – 26 years old, clean cut, ready smile, the Ralph Lauren cardigan and already a three-time winner on the PGA Tour. The swing might not be one of orthodox beauty and power, but it certainly worked.

Nearly six years on and there is a hint of grey in the stubble, there has just been one wrap-around victory to add to the CV and the Olympic Club success remains his only top 10 in a major.

There have been two winless Ryder Cup appearances where Simpson’s contributions have ranged from spectacular, alongside Bubba Watson, to less memorable. He shanked one against Ian Poulter in the singles at Medinah which gave the Englishman the upper hand mentally in a match that he came back to win.

Two years later he hit one of the worst opening tee shots at Gleneagles when he skied the first blow of the competition – the divot was still there by the time he made his second start in the Sunday singles. He returned a half from his two outings.

Interestingly, despite his lowly Ryder Cup ranking at the start of the week, he was included in captain Jim Furyk’s get-together at his Ponte Vedra home on Wednesday.

Within the space of four days his chances of making that team for Paris look a whole lot brighter now.

At this year’s Masters there was another layer added when he worked out after his second round that he was missing too many greens on the wrong side. So whatever happened over the weekend he would not make the same mistakes, he played the next two days in 70-67.

“It sounds simple but to be out there with a 9-iron aiming 20 feet one side or the other is pretty hard but I think that’s why Phil Mickelson has had so much success there, because he knows every hole where he can miss it and his short game is good enough he’s going to pitch it close to the hole.”

This week Simpson barely missed anything. He was hitting more fairways than anyone, was hitting more greens than anyone bar one player and then picking up more shots than anyone on the greens. The closest anyone got was four shots, in the end it was a demolition by four shots (he inexplicably doubled the 18th) of the ‘deepest field’ on the calendar.

Otherwise it is the knowledge and experience that comes with a few backward steps in the game. Professional golf is rarely, if ever, a succession of quality seasons with wins dotted around the calendar. For Simpson, while his game has hardly dropped off a cliff – he came into the week as the World No. 41 – it has been significantly harder than he was used to.

Sometimes life also gets in the way and Simpson has had to deal with the death of his dad Sam, a man who introduced his son both to golf and to his wife, towards the end of last year.

“It was a long couple of years but a good couple of years. It really stretched me as a player and stretched me, really, I got to look inside and see what I had in me. Knowing my dad was sick, he always told me growing up to never give up, never be a quitter, so that was off the table. I was never going to be done with golf. But it certainly was a struggle.”

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