Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 18, 2012

True To Form, Olympic Produces An Unlikely Open Champion

A NOTE TO READERS: This post is one day later than usual, in order to provide coverage and commentary on the U.S. Open golf tournament, which ended late Sunday night, east coast time.

It is the purpose of the event that in the end, after four grueling rounds, one player will stand alone as our national champion. It is the historical nature of the golf course, where the tournament has been contested on four previous occasions, that the one should be someone unexpected. So it was that Sunday evening, Webb Simpson, who had trailed by as many as six strokes at one point during the final round, stood on the 18th green at the Olympic Club in San Francisco, hoisting the U.S. Open trophy.

The USGA first staged the Open at Olympic in 1955, when the utterly unheralded Jack Fleck birdied the final hole to catch Ben Hogan and force an 18 hole playoff, which Fleck won by three strokes. Eleven years later Arnold Palmer led Billy Casper by a whopping seven shots going to the back nine on Sunday. But Palmer bogeyed five of the final nine holes and needed a scrambling par at the last just to force a playoff. The following day Casper coasted to a four shot victory. Then in 1987 it was Tom Watson’s turn to be buried at the course known as “The Graveyard of Champions.” Watson led Scott Simpson and Keith Clearwater by one at the start of the final round, but Simpson caught him on the home nine and held on for his only major championship. Finally in 1998 the Open returned to the Olympic Club, and Payne Stewart appeared poised to win his third major, as he led by four shots and was the only golfer under par through three rounds. Like Casper three decades earlier, Lee Janzen trailed by as many as seven shots in the midst of the final round. But just as Palmer had given Casper an opening, so too did Stewart give one to Janzen by shooting his worst score of the tournament, a 4-over 74. With a final round 68 Janzen stole a one stroke victory.

For two days this year the U.S. Open was all about Tiger Woods. Unfortunately for Woods and his multitude of fans, they were the first two days of the tournament rather than the last. With his game finally returning to form and coming off his second win of the season at the Memorial two weeks earlier Woods was tabbed as the favorite by many in the media. When he opened with rounds of 69 and 70 to share the 36 hole lead at one under par with David Toms and Jim Furyk, his fifteenth major title seemed a forgone conclusion. On nine previous occasions Woods had led or been tied for the lead at the midpoint of a major, and eight times he had gone on to victory.

But the days of Woods bending golf courses to his will while his competitors cower appear to be over. He remains one of the world’s elite golfers, but the key words in that assessment are “one of.” Just like Luke Donald, Rory McIlroy and Bubba Watson, all of whom missed the cut with two poor rounds on Thursday and Friday, Woods is quite capable of putting up a big number. On Saturday that number was 75, the highest score among the top seventeen players on the leaderboard. The field recorded thirteen sub-par scores in the third round, as many as in the first two rounds combined. But going the other way, Woods made six bogeys, one more than his total for the first two rounds. Whatever outside chance he still had vanished quickly on Sunday, when Woods opened with four bogeys and a double-bogey in the first six holes. At that point even NBC stopped showing his every shot.

The two leaders at the start of the final round were Furyk and Graeme McDowell, both of whom have won an Open. Among those lurking were two-time Open champion Ernie Els and Englishman Lee Westwood, whose impressive career resume lacks only a major championship to be complete. Playing in just his second U.S. Open, Simpson began play four back of the two co-leaders.

Westwood’s hopes for a major breakthrough ended relatively early in the round. On the par-4 5th hole his drive went right of the fairway. It landed in the dense foliage of one of the huge cypress trees guarding the hole. The same thing had happened to Janzen at Olympic’s last Open. But that earlier Lee got lucky. Just as the allowable time to search for a ball was expiring and Janzen was starting to walk back to the tee, his ball fell out of the tree. Janzen was able to save par on the 5th and went on to win. For Lee Westwood there was no such luck. He had to absorb a penalty stroke for the lost ball and returned to the tee to begin the hole again. The result was a double bogey from which Westwood never recovered.

Els was a factor for considerably longer, aided by an eagle two at the 7th hole where he drove the green of the short par-4 and rolled an eight foot putt into the heart of the cup. But late in the round, with no margin for error, he pulled his approach shot on the par-5 16th hole. The ball rolled off the green and down into a swale. Choosing to putt the ball back up the closely mown area, Els’ first attempt didn’t make it to the crest. His Callaway golf ball came rolling back down to his feet. The resulting bogey quashed any dreams of a third Open title for the Big Easy.

Simpson recorded two early bogeys to fall six back of Furyk and McDowell. At that point, like two of the previous winners at Olympic, he was so far back as to be little more than an afterthought. But Simpson and Olympic reminded all of us that the tournament isn’t over until all 72 holes have been played. He followed his second bogey on the 5th hole with three successive birdies on six, seven and eight. He added another birdie to open his back nine, which put him at 2-under for the day and 1-over par for the tournament. Under mounting pressure, he then ground out eight consecutive pars. While he missed clear birdie opportunities at the 13th and 15th solid pars are often more than good enough to win the Open. Finally at the 18th his approach shot landed in a gnarly lie just off the putting surface. He executed a career-changing chip shot, the ball rolling out to three feet from the cup. With his final par Simpson posted a 1-over total of 281, and headed to the clubhouse to await the outcome.

Out on the course there was a moment when it looked like Furyk might defy Olympic’s history. A poor drive on the 12th left him well back from the hole, and his approach ended on a downslope in a greenside bunker. He had no choice but to blast out away from the flag, leaving thirty feet for par. But Furyk, long considered one of the better putters on Tour, calmly rolled in the par save to remain one shot clear of Simpson. But his lead lasted only to the next hole, where he missed the green of the par-3 13th. A poor chip left Furyk with another long putt for par, and this one didn’t fall; although Furyk did, into a tie with Simpson. Three holes later, on the par-5 16th, Furyk hit a drive that only a weekend duffer could love. It was a short duck hook into the trees way left of the fairway. It was not his last wayward shot on the hole, and he eventually found himself still short of the green, chipping to try to make par. When his effort rolled past the hole Simpson had the lead to himself.

Meanwhile McDowell had seemingly played himself out of the tournament with four bogeys on the front nine. But he regained his scoring touch on the back, and when he rolled in a birdie at the 17th he joined Furyk at plus-2, one behind Simpson with one to play. The final twosome came up the final fairway, facing uphill approach shots to a green guarded by four bunkers that by their shape appear to spell out “I-O-U-!.” Furyk’s hopes ended when he pulled his approach into the “I” bunker. Needing to hole out to tie from an impossible lie, his third sailed into the “O” trap in front of the green. McDowell found the putting surface with his approach, but a lengthy birdie putt never had a chance, and in the clubhouse Simpson and his wife embraced.

While Simpson may be an unexpected winner, he is by no means unworthy. Now in just his fourth year on the PGA Tour, he had a breakout season in 2011 when he won twice and chased Luke Donald for the money title all the way to the season’s final event. Just 25 years old, he is one of the young guns who have been the focus of much of the Tour’s recent marketing. Now in just his second appearance in our national championship, with a little help from a golf course that never favors favorites, Webb Simpson has his first career major and is the U.S. Open champion.

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