Winning can be quite the elixir.
One year ago, Webb Simpson was sitting at home, waiting for the PGA Tour’s Fall Series to begin and hoping to win enough money to keep his playing card for 2011. Simpson closed with a flourish, winning slightly more than $300,000 and finishing a career-best fourth at the Justin Timberlake Shriners Hospitals for Children Open.
Today, Simpson is in Chicago, preparing for the third leg of the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup Playoffs and hoping to bolster his first place ranking in then FedEx Cup standings, heading into next week’s season-ending Tour Championship.
“At the end of the day, we want to win golf tournaments, but when $10 million is at stake, you can’t not think about that,” he said on Tuesday. “Part of me is kind of happy this week isn’t determining who’s going to win because you get one more week to focus on the golf. I know in Atlanta there will be a lot more focus I’m sure on the $10 million prize. Still the goal remains you want to be in the top five positions going into East Lake.”
Simpson, 26, has put himself in this position after a torrid month in which he won twice, including the Deutsche Bank Championship, and tied for 10th in the first FedEx Cup Playoffs event.
Simpson’s season-long ascension is no surprise as he has been projected a future star in the game ever since he was an All-American at Wake Forest University. Always known as a quality short game player, Simpson has shored up his driving with a simple practice range drill with his caddie.
“He’ll hold the end of a club about an inch behind my head so if I go back too far I’ll hit the club,” he said. “It’s allowed me to stay more centered over the ball, and if I stay more centered, my weight transfer through the ball is easier.”
In the past year, Simpson’s has gone from 140th on tour in driving accuracy to 83rd, improving from 60.47 percent to 62.35. A minor incremental jump, but when in a 72-hole tournament can come down to a missed 3-foot putt, the small things matter.
With his two wins — two more than young sensation Rickie Fowler’s zero — and a U.S. Presidents Cup appearance coming in November, Simpson’s name is now in any discussion regarding the tour’s best young talent.
“The last few years, watching the guys who were my age or just older win golf tournaments, it pushed me to want to get to that level and compete with those guys,” he said. “You’re sitting back and watching them play in the biggest tournaments that the game has to offer, and the competitor inside you wants to be in those tournaments and compete against those guys.
“Whether they’re better than me or not, I’m not sure. But I’m just a firm believer in doing what I know how to do to improve, and if I do those things, sooner or later I’ll either catch up, get to their level or pass them. It’s been nice the last three weeks to win a couple times and maybe get in the mix of those great young players.”
Now he’s in position to do something none of his twentysomething peers have ever done — win a FedEx Cup Trophy.
Oh, and receive a check worth $10 million.
Stuart Hall is editor of the Golf Press Association.