PONTE VEDRA BEACH, FLORIDA – After Webb Simpson banged in a 27-foot birdie putt from behind the 15th green at the TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course on Friday afternoon to launch himself deeper into the ether, his playing companion Tyrrell Hatton walked over to Simpson’s caddie Paul Tesori with a simple question.
“Do you remember Chevy Chase in Caddyshack?” Tesori said Hatton asked him, referencing the scene in which Chase’s character Ty Webb holes every putt he hits in an otherworldly practice session.
It felt that way for long stretches of the warm afternoon as Simpson stalked the course record while building a monumental lead midway through the Players Championship. By the time Simpson reached the tee of the infamous par-3 17th hole, he had made six consecutive birdies, was 11-under par for the day and couldn’t keep from thinking that 59 was just two more birdies away.
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Instead, Simpson double-bogeyed the 17th after bouncing his tee shot off a bulkhead and into the water, settling for a course record-tying 63 that left him five clear of Charl Schwartzel, Patrick Cantlay and Danny Lee halfway home.
“Obviously when you’re out there competing in a big tournament, you’re as focused as can be, but then at a certain point, maybe on (No.) 13 today, you start just – like a kid, just kind of laughing. Everything is going in,” Simpson said.
“You feel like no matter what, you’re going to make it, and I grew up on an easy golf course, so it reminded me of being back home, shooting low numbers. But at the same time you’re at TPC Sawgrass, so you know that trouble is everywhere, as you guys saw with me on 17.”
Golfers’ minds being what they are, it would be easy enough for Simpson to dwell on the bad swing he made at No. 17 and the double-bogey damage it did, but there was too much good to linger on one mistake, though the timing of it suggested the moment got the better of him.
The reality was it was more than the moment. It was an awkward number for Simpson – he wanted to land the ball 137 yards away so it would stop just short of the hole – and enough uncertainty in the wind that the situation conspired to create a bad swing with a sand wedge.
“You knew in the air … the ball finished where it was supposed to finish,” Tesori said.
Otherwise, Simpson’s day was a thing of rare beauty.
“I didn’t know the (course) record. I figured I was probably close. But to be honest, I cared more about having a good routine and hitting a good shot in this golf tournament than the record,” said Simpson, who became the seventh player to shoot 63 in the event. “The records are just bonuses to good play. Honestly, it wasn’t really in my thoughts as much as probably everybody else’s.”
Simpson did equal Jason Day’s 36-hole record of 15-under par 129.
One year ago this week, Simpson used the claw putting grip for the first time in a tournament, having been encouraged by Tim Clark a day earlier to give it a try. It transformed Simpson, who ranked 177th in strokes gained putting two years ago but is 10th on Tour this year and first this week.
“I think golf as a whole and sports as a whole, confidence is so big, and it can change the way you think. And I think even more so maybe with putting,” Simpson said.
“Putting there’s read, there’s grain, there’s speed, and then there’s you. There’s the stroke, the aimer … Even with the short putter, I had tournaments where I putted well, but I never had stretches three months, six months, eight months where consistently I was a lot better.
“So I think once that kind of four, five, six months of good putting hit, I started to believe again that I’m a good putter. It had been a long time since I had really felt that and believed it.”