Golf

Watson, Simpson shine in debut

GolfWeek Jeff Babineau
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MELBOURNE, Australia

The essence of match play isn’t always the brilliant shots that are pulled off, but how a team weathers and recovers from the bad ones. Make something out of virtually nothing and rip your opponents’ hearts out. That’s Page 1 of the basic manual.

Out first in foursomes at the ninth Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne Thursday, Bubba Watson and Webb Simpson stood on the fifth tee already 2 down to Ernie Els and Ryo Ishikawa. The home squad was building momentum. Couldn’t get much worse, really. And then the two first-time Presidents Cup contestants simply turned it loose.

The prodigious-hitting Watson took care of the long driving, and Simpson, the hottest man on the PGA Tour at year’s end, basically took care of everything else in the alternate-shot format. The pair combined to birdie half their final 14 holes, blitzing Els/Ishikawa, 4 and 2.

There were two pivotal points in the match: The Internationals were 1 down but seemingly had the upper hand at the par-4 ninth hole, where a loose iron off the tee by Watson left Simpson in a precarious position in a left-side fairway bunker. Facing 201 yards to an uphill green, Simpson would have done well just to get his next shot anywhere near the putting surface; instead, he took a 6-iron and flushed it, his ball landing a third of the way onto the green and releasing to within 2 feet of the hole for a conceded birdie. Ishikawa would hole an 18-footer up the hill for the halve, but the Americans had avoided a slip. It felt like a victory.

How good was Simpson’s shot? So good that it went right to No. 1 on his caddie’s list of Simpson’s best shots for 2011. And considering the breakout season Simpson put together (two victories, two playoff losses, $6.3 million in official earnings), that’s a difficult list to lead.

“He was between a 5-iron and 6-iron, but we went with the 6 because we thought we could get more of the ball,” explained Simpson’s caddie, Paul Tesori. “He flushed it. I told him it was the greatest shot he hit all year. I mean, these guys shot 7 under today. How impressive is that? You could have 100 guys go out there today playing alternate shot and I tell you, nobody else is going to shoot 7 under.”

Three holes later after Simpson’s stellar play from the bunker at 9, the U.S. side was chopping it up along the left side of the par-4 12th. A 2-up lead was in danger of being trimmed in half. A poor approach by Watson, a soft chip by Simpson from the rough, and finally, the Internationals, eyeing a 10-footer for birdie after a deft Ishikawa approach, were poised to break into the Americans’ run. That’s when Watson stepped up, canning an improbable 40-footer from the front left edge of the green. The crowd didn’t applaud so much as it gasped. One more instance where the visitors breaking some hearts.

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“It’s one of those you read it, but it’s so far away, so you almost give them the hole, but then you relax and hit a good putt,” Watson said. “Halfway to the hole, I was thinking about the highlights, all these guys in the old highlights you always see (in Ryder and Presidents Cups), people doing heroic stuff, and then if this goes in, do I celebrate? Do I yell? I mean, it’s not our hometown, I don’t know what to do …”

And then the ball vanished into the hole. Did he consider the putt to be all of 40 feet?

“Easily fifty,” he deadpanned, looking to grow the legend. “Uphill. Into the wind.”

Watson and Simpson have been talking about playing alongside one another wearing red, white and blue for most of this year. The two tangled in the spring in New Orleans, where Watson edged Simpson in a playoff for the Zurich Classic title. Watson likes the way Simpson thinks his way through trouble shots, much the way Watson does himself. The two share strong Christian beliefs and attend bible study together on Tour. Their caddies are even buddies. So Watson, who got his feet wet in last year’s Ryder Cup in Wales, gave himself one simple job Thursday at Royal Melbourne: Keep Simpson loose. And make sure his confidence stays high.

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When Simpson hit a poor shot at the fourth hole, Watson stepped forward and gave him a quick pep talk: “Look,” he told Simpson, “you’re the best player here. There’s a reason why you’re No. 9 in the world. There’s a reason why you’re on this team.”

Simpson responded by knocking down birdie putts on the next two holes.

“It was a good gel, a good mix,” Watson said.

The two will lead the U.S. team out Friday in four-balls, facing Els and Ishikawa once again.

“I think he could see I was pretty nervous, and the talk he gave me helped,” Simpson said. “I knew him pretty well before this week, but now I know him really well. He’s already one of my best friends, and he made me laugh like crazy out there.

Simpson smiled, and had one more thing to add: “I already told Freddie (Couples, the U.S. captain), if he puts me with anyone else, I’m going home.”

Tagged: Ernie Els, Ryo Ishikawa, Bubba Watson, Webb Simpson

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