THE PLAYERS Championship Sunday might have been on Mother’s Day, but Webb Simpson was just too good for the event to produce the mother of all comebacks. Simpson’s final round 1-over 73 was the worst final round of anyone who finished in the top 40 at TPC Sawgrass, but with a 7-stroke lead to begin the day, it was near flawless prevent defense.
The 32-year-old Simpson’s 270 (-18) result was the fewest strokes any champion has needed since Fred Couples had the same score 22 years ago. The fifth win of Simpsons’ career was a four-stroke triumph over the trio of Charl Schwartzel, Jimmy Walker, and Xander Schauffele.
The prodigious three round advantage held by Simpson seemed insurmountable at first, but Webb did have a poor history of closing tournaments, and when a number of the players in the earlier tee times went extra-low, most notably the albatross-fueled 9-under 63 by reigning U.S. Open Champion Brooks Koepka, things again got interesting.
A huge logjam commenced in the second and third positions on the leaderboard, as the result of Sunday surges from myriad golfers, including 2013 PLAYERS Champion Tiger Woods, but the large addition of challengers did not phaze Simpson, and nobody was able to put serious pressure on him. The victory was Simpson’s first since October of 2013.
FINAL TOP 10
1 Webb Simpson -18
2 Charl Schwartzel -14
2 Jimmy Walker -14
2 Xander Schauffele -14
5 Jason Dufner -13
5 Jason Day -13
7 Keegan Bradley -12
7 Harold Varner III -12
7 Tommy Fleetwood -12
7 Danny Lee -12
11 Justin Thomas -11
11 Brooks Koepka -11
11 Tiger Woods -11
17 Dustin Johnson -10
17 Matt Kuchar -10
23 Henrik Stenson -9
23 Justin Rose -9
30 Ryan Moore -8
41 Jordan Spieth -6
41 Patrick Reed -6
46 Beau Hossler -5
57 Bubba Watson -4
57 Tony Finau -4
63 Si Woo Kim -3
63 Jon Rahm -3
70 Sergio Garcia E
HOW WEBB SIMPSON WON
While Simpson did everything he needed to hold off an absurdly talented field on Sunday, he won this tournament with scores of 66-63-68 over the first three rounds. At 19-under through 54 holes, the closest players to him coming into Sunday were Danny Lee at 12-under and Dustin Johnson at 10-under. For Simpson to surrender that kind of lead, he would have needed an historic break-down, and that just did not happen.
Simpson began his day with six consecutive pars and then a birdie on 7. However, with so many other players on the leaderboard going extra low, a Webb-Win seemed less inevitable after bogeys on 8 and 10 got him to 1-over for the round.
Simpson was able to slow the bleeding right then though, and he played the next seven holes in a bogey-free 2-under to reach 18 with a six-stroke advantage. He hit the approach on his final hole into the water, resulting in a double-bogey, but the damage was cosmetic at that point. His 73 only allowed the field to make up three of the seven shots they needed to catch him.
Webb was extra dialed-in off the tees and on the greens, and he finished the week ranked first in driving accuracy (he hit 12 of 14 fairways in rounds 2, 3, and 4), and first in strokes: gained putting.
The stellar putting performance is surprisingly not anomalous for Simpson, who struggled badly in that discipline when the ban on anchored putters was implemented several years ago, but has seen an awe-inspiring improvement in the past 12 months. He is currently 5th on Tour in strokes gained: putting.
WHAT IT MEANS FOR WEBB SIMPSON
Even though one of Simpson’s four wins prior to this week came at the U.S. Open, it could easily be argued that this PLAYERS Championship was the best result of his career. When he won that U.S. Open (2012 at Olympic Club), Simpson never held the lead while on the course. He started that Sunday well back of the lead and posted a low number, while everyone around him couldn’t stop tripping over themselves.
In this victory, however, Simpson was absolutely dominant during the first three rounds. In round two, he was even on a 59 watch until he sent his tee shot on the iconic 17th into the water and carded a double bogey, and STILL tied the course record with a 9-under 63.
His final round was not the birdie-binge that some of his other rounds were, but with the enormous lead, he had no reason to not play conservatively. At no point on Sunday did Webb look like he was even close to vulnerable.
This could mean great things for Simpson going forward. It ended a 4-plus year winless drought, which should be tremendous for his confidence. Simpson also has had a reputation of playing poorly with the lead, and showing the ability to close at TPC Sawgrass should also help him going forward in that regard.
He has looked close to getting back in the winner’s circle all season, and now that he finally has, he will likely contend in many events going forward.
TALE OF THE TIGER
In just his eighth event back from a year-long injury sabbatical, Tiger Woods looked impressively close to himself at times this weekend. He made the cut at THE PLAYERS on the number, and was fortunate that the cut line moved up a stroke late on Friday, but on Saturday (where he vaulted 59 spots up the leaderboard) and Sunday, he might have had the best performance of anyone at TPC Sawgrass.
If the tournament had been a 12-hole event, the leaderboard would have looked like the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. Tiger played 1-12 in a scoring 14-under par over the third and fourth rounds. In both, he was unable to keep the momentum going over the last six holes, carding a bogey on the 14th both days and a double on 17 on Sunday (after hitting his tee shot into the water for the first time on 17 in 13 years), but a 65-69 weekend meant a T11 finish. He even reached second place at one point on the back nine on Sunday.
NEW NO. 1!
Justin Thomas did not have the week he expected. A PLAYERS Championship is one of the few things missing from his impressive, young resume, but a 73-70 start dug too deep of a hole, although he was much more relevant on the weekend, playing his final two rounds 68-66.
A T11 is nothing special for the 25-year-old who has eight wins (including one major) over the past three years, but the performance was good enough to reach one of his biggest goals: he is now the No. 1 ranked golfer in the world.
While it feels like Dustin Johnson just took the No. 1 position in the OWGR from Jason Day just yesterday, DJ ended up holding that position for 65 consecutive weeks, the fifth longest No.1 steak in Tour history.
As for Johnson, he needed to finish in the top 11 to stay on top of the rankings for at least another week, and he appeared to be in good shape, sitting in solo-third after three rounds. However, a pedestrian even-par 72, while most of those around him were going low, dropped the 17-time Tour winner to a disappointing T17 result.
The most popular pairing on Sunday was undoubtedly the duo of Woods and Jordan Spieth, and for the most part, they matched the hype. Spieth had just one bogey over his first 17 holes, and nearly had the shot of the tournament when he came inches from an ace on the iconic 17th hole on Sunday.
Unfortunately for Spieth, a three-time major champion, everything fell apart on 18. He went waterborne with a tee shot that was miles from land, and then four-putted for a quadruple-bogey 8, which was very discouraging given how much he has struggled with his putter in 2018.
The one hole dropped him from T17 all the way down to T41.
It was not all bad for Spieth, however. Even with the painfully bad finish, his result moved him past Jon Rahm for the No. 3 spot in the world rankings.
Brooks Koepka has missed most of 2018 with a wrist injury and nearly had to withdraw from this event when he re-injured himself on the range prior to his start, but there should be no doubt about where his game is at after he posted a 9-under 63 on Sunday.
The course record-tying performance even included an albatross on the par-5 16th hole, just the fourth in the history of THE PLAYERS.
Reigning PGA Tour Rookie of the Year Xander Schauffele was making his first career start at THE PLAYERS this week, a course that typically demands experience, but he looked anything like a first-timer this week.
A 5-under 67 in the final round resulted in a co-runner-up finish for the week, a week where he led the field in strokes gained: tee-to-green.
Matching both Schauffele’s final round 67 and his T2 result was former PGA Champion Jimmy Walker, who looked better than he has since winning the 2016 PGA Championship. Walker now has four consecutive top-25 finishes and finally looks close to back from the year-and-a-half struggles that can be largely imputed to an unfortunate bout with lyme disease.
Typically one of the biggest challenges on Tour, TPC Sawgrass surrendered few over-par scores on Sunday, largely due to perfect conditions. However, while many players went well in the red in the final round, several failed to make the move they needed to.
Danny Lee’s game has been an absolute abomination since November, as his last 14 starts had produced nine missed cuts and nothing inside the top 50, but the former Greenbrier Champion was sitting in the runner-up position through 54 holes after a 68-66-70 start. He needed an incredible Sunday to push Simpson and early on, he was doing what he needed to, with birdies on 2 and 3, but from there failed to produce another birdie, and an even-par 70 left him in a tie for seventh place.
The biggest drop in the final round (by far) came from Marc Leishman, who carded six bogeys in a 76 that dropped him 47 spots down the final leaderboard, into a tie for 63rd.
The only player to match Leishman for the lowest Sunday round was Sergio Garcia. Sergio is the all-time earnings leader for THE PLAYERS, but over the weekend, he looked like he had never played the course. A triple-bogey on the 18th hole was an appropriate finisher on a 75-76 weekend that dropped the 2017 Masters Champion into solo-70th place. As bad as the result was, however, it did snap a three-event missed cut for Sergio, who had posted three straight top 10s prior.
“I think a lot. I think to beat the best field in golf will give me confidence going into the majors and World Golf Championship events. We all — everybody on TOUR I think wants to think of themselves as a top player, and I want to get back to kind of that top level caliber that I played at for a few years.
“More importantly, I just want to keep getting better. I want to enjoy this. It’s going to boost my confidence, but I want to build on it and be in contention more in big tournaments.
“I haven’t been able to do that as much as I want, so I think this will help in those tournaments.”
– Webb Simpson