Webb Simpson: Is He Getting Back from Putting Purgatory?

Does Webb Simpson’s Waste Management Phoenix Open performance signal return to 2012 form?

Webb Simpson’s career took a nosedive after the anchored putting ban, but at last week’s Waste Management Open, he finished tied for first. Granted, he lost in the playoff to Hideki Matsuyama, but for Simpson it could be the dawning of a new era.

“I’m just thankful that, you know, I have kind of found a method that’s been working,” Simpson told the media after the playoff.

I’m trying to just understand kind of this method why it’s working. I feel like if any change has happened mentally with my putting, it’s been that I have just tried to simplify it, don’t take too much time. – Webb Simpson

Webb Simpson is one of four fairly recent major champions caught up in the long putter ruling which took effect in 2016. The rule banned putters that were anchored to the body, a technique Simpson used to win the 2012 U.S. Open.

Since Simpson changed putters his earnings have decreased dramatically. In 2012 he won more than $3.4 million. His 2016 earnings plummeted to $1.4 million. He has not won an event since the 2013 Shriner’s Hospital for Children when he was still using the belly putter. It’s possible his tie for first at Waste Management marks the beginning of a new and positive chapter in Simpson’s career.

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Simpson struggled while he experimented with a variety of putters. He had to learn a new stroke with a new putter. That takes time. Finally he settled on the belly length putter with the Matt Kuchar grip, an elongated version of what Bernhard Langer used before going longer.

Until last week, Webb Simpson’s best post-belly putter finish since the U.S. Open victory came at Wells Fargo in 2015 where he tied for second. So did Simpson finally achieve proficiency with the Kuchar method, or was it something in his ball striking that caused him to turn the corner?

Webb Simpson’s Stats: Putting, Driving Accuracy, or GIR?

Simpson turned to Billy Harmon this January for some guidance with his swing. Whether that was the key or whether something else clicked, Webb Simpson’s stats, according to the PGA Tour, show one major difference in the last two rounds at Waste Management: it may have had less to do with putting than driving.

  • In the first round, Simpson hit 6 of 14 fairways, 13 of 18 greens in regulation, and he had 28 putts.
  • Basically, round two was a repeat. Simpson hit 6 of 14 fairways, 12 of 18 greens in regulation, and he had 31 putts.
  • In round three, he hit 11 of 14 fairways, 14 of 18 greens in regulation, and he had 27 putts.
  • Finally, in round four, just as in round three, he hit 11 of 14 fairways, 14 of 18 greens in regulation, and he had 27 putts.

So the difference in Simpson’s finishes may have had as much to do with his skill at finding fairways as with putting. It may be that Simpson was able to get to get closer to the pin on more holes because he was not out of position on his drive. That may be the reason he needed fewer putts in the last two rounds.

Anchored Putters Aren’t New

Strangely enough, it may have been Simpson’s success at the U.S. Open in 2012 that was one of the catalysts of the rule change.

The USGA and R&A were happy to look the other way for 25 years or so between the time Johnny Miller debuted a belly putter at Pebble Beach in 1985, bracing the putter against his forearm, and 2013.

When Charlie Owens made his own to use on the PGA Tour Champions circuit in 1986, they looked the other way. They were fine when Miller won at Pebble Beach in 1987 using his long putter. They didn’t make noise after Orville Moody won the U.S. Senior Open in 1989, maybe because Moody threatened legal action if they banned it. Rocco Mediate with broomstick? No problem. Paul Azinger using a belly putter? That was OK. Cost Knost winning the U.S. Amateur with a belly putter. Nobody batted an eye. Ditto Webb Simpson.  He started using a long putter in his first  year at Wake Forest.

Why Did the USGA & R&A Rule Against Anchored Putting?

The USGA and R&A were ok for a quarter of a century with long anchored putters and belly putters. Then they weren’t.

Keegan Bradley became the first golfer to win a major with a belly putter in 2011 at the PGA. It was the first ripple. Then the next year, Simpson won the U.S. Open with a belly putter. A month afterward, Ernie Els won the British Open with a long putter, after Adam Scott, using a long putter, faded over the finishing holes, and Tiger Woods’ charge ran out of gas.

It’s likely the R&A’s hair was on fire at that point, and when Adam Scott won the Masters the following spring, the collective heads of the USGA and the R&A exploded. Hello? It was OK for 25 years, but not when three players won the U.S. Open and the British Open and then the Masters? That’s when it was an actual problem?

The timing of the change made the two organizations look petty, particularly considering they had ignored it for a quarter of a century. However, they make the rules, and presumably, they decided they would make a rules change.

Simpson, Els, Bradley and Scott were just four who were caught out in the drama.

Scott mailed his long putter to Peter Dawson, then outgoing head of the R&A. Bradley has not won a PGA Tour event since 2012. Els, a Hall of Fame member, now 47, won most recently at the 2013 BWM Championship.

At the end of 2014, Simpson broke the belly putter so he wouldn’t be tempted to use it another year. He was going to throw it away until his wife reminded him of the success he’d had with it. He put it, in two pieces, in his trophy case.

Now,  after tying for first at Waste Management, Simpson looks on track to defeat the demons that have kept him out of the winner’s circle for so long.

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