By Dan Reardon
The significant stops on the PGA Tour schedule are always opportunities to look at trends among the top players. Last year we saw the full blossoming of players under 30 dominating in the winner’s circles. Eight of the last nine major winners have been first-time breakthroughs. In calendar year 2018, bounceback has been a theme on Tour to date.
Bubba Watson rebounded from arguably the worst stretch of his career with a win in Los Angeles. Phil Mickelson erased winless years of frustration dating back to 2013 with a victory in Mexico. Rory McIlroy and Jason Day ended shorter droughts. Paul Casey won for the first time in the U.S. in nearly a decade, and Ian Poulter cashed in for the first time since 2012.
That scenario was on full display on the final-day leaderboard at The Players Championship.
Three of the first four names at the top were former major champions, Jimmy Walker being of the most recent vintage, having won the PGA Championship at Baltusrol in 2016. Charl Schwartzel posted his Masters win at Augusta in 2011, and Players winner Webb Simpson won the U.S. open at Olympic in 2012.
In a way, this year’s final results may justify calling it the ‘Bounceback Open.’ Half of the first 22 names at the top were major winners, but only three — Brooks Koepka, Jordan Spieth and new world number one, Justin Thomas — were from a year ago.
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Former PGA champions Jason Dufner and Keegan Bradley cracked the top 10 after playing in relative anonymity in recent years. Adam Scott quietly posted a T11, putting woes and all. Then there is the poster boy for bouncing back this year, Tiger Woods, who staged his best weekend performance against an elite field with a two-day -10 on his road to recovery.
But it was Simpson, who buried the Players field early, and successfully managed a final-day seven-shot lead, who made the biggest statement. His opening 66-63 start left few on the lead lap heading into the weekend, and his 68 on Saturday meant if he didn’t close the deal at TPC Sawgrass on Sunday he would own the biggest final-day collapse in PGA Tour history.
Simpson wobbled a bit, including a careless double at the 72nd hole, but the closest anyone could get into his draft was four shots. His Players win is in stark contrast to his sole major, the U.S. Open, six years ago. In San Francisco, the 32-year-old was in early and waited as principle contenders at the start of play on Sunday faltered down the stretch. After that victory, he admitted the outcome was even a surprise to him. “I definitely thought about winning and wanted to win, but I was just trying to keep my mind focused on the hole that I was playing and just somehow make pars.”
At The Players it was a totally different mindset for the stretch run. “But you do your best to not stay in that place, and I kept reminding myself today that the only thing that matters is my next shot. It’s easy to do on Thursday. It’s a lot harder to do today,” he said. “So yeah, I thought long and hard about how I’d feel coming off 17 knowing I had it won. So, once I got to 17 and the ball was on the green, internally I was celebrating.’
By the numbers, he made it look easy. Over four days, he missed only 10 fairways, number one in the field. The first three days he totaled nine greens missed, finishing T5 after a more erratic Sunday. And on the greens, he celebrated the one-year anniversary of a putting stroke he learned from Tim Clark to finish +9.368, again the best in the field for the week.
It’s with the putter that Simpson’s bounceback begins and ends. An anchored belly putter for much of his career, he faced the necessary adjustment when the rules changed. Resentful at first, experimental for a while, the eventual results have been a discovery. “But to be honest with you guys, I mean, I’ve never putted this well in my life, and I think if I had stayed with the belly putter, I think I maybe averaged 35th to 60th every year in putting, so very average. And this year I think I’m in the top 10.”
“It’s funny how those things happen, but, you know, it’s been — this is probably the first time I can say I’m glad they banned it, because I wouldn’t have ever probably swayed away from the belly putter.”
“And this game is so funny, you see it all the time, guys struggle for three, four, five, six months and then they go win. Every year on TOUR a guy will miss five cuts in a row and go win,” he told the media afterwards.
“I think I just kept telling myself that, that if I throw in the towel and if I give up, I will never be successful, but if I stay at it, who knows. And I’m glad I did.”
Dan Reardon has covered golf for radio station KMOX in St. Louis for 33 years. In that time, he has covered more than 100 events, including majors and other PGA, LPGA and Champions Tour tournaments. During his broadcast career, Reardon conducted one-on-one interviews with three dozen members of the World Golf of Fame. He has contributed to many publications over the years and co-authored the book Golf’s Greatest Eighteen from Random House. Reardon served as Director of Media relations for LPGA events in both St. Louis and Chicago for 10 years.