Webb Simpson, the 26-year-old golfing gentleman from North Carolina, had an indisputably stellar 2011 season: second in money ($6,347,353), first in scoring average (69.16), second in top-10 finishes (12). But with any luck, he could have had an absolutely monster year.
In New Orleans he lost a playoff when he was hit with a penalty stroke after his ball moved on the green as he was addressing it, a rule that has since been overturned by the USGA. He lost another playoff at Sea Island, and finished a hard-luck runner-up at the Transitions after bogeying the 72nd hole. Simpson's two wins could easily have been three or four or five, and his breakthrough year would have been one for the ages.
Still, Simpson is not complaining. This Nationwide tour grad came into 2011 with no victories and six top-10s to show for three previous years of toil, and last year he didn't wrap up his Tour card until the second-to-last event of the season.
Simpson's rise has been built on a timeless formula: hard work and a commitment to fundamentals. At Wake Forest and early in his Tour career he was known as a scrambler extraordinaire, but at the start of 2011 he began taking advice from caddie Paul Tesori, a former touring pro who has previously looped for Vijay Singh and Sean O'Hair. Tesori convinced Simpson to take the club back with the face more square to the target, which eliminated his old bad habit of taking it back too far inside. Suddenly Simpson's ballstriking became as efficient as his short game. At season's end he would rank eighth in greens in regulation and 24th in total driving and lead the Tour's All-Around statistic.
As Simpson became a headliner in numerous Sunday telecasts, the golfing public couldn't help but be smitten by this young man with impeccable manners who dressed like a Southern dandy. Simpson's son James was born in February, and he got a lot of air-time in the arms of his glamorous mom, Dowd, a part-time actress. For a Tour that sells family values, the telegenic, God-fearing Simpson clan is about as perfect as it gets.
Simpson earned extra notice for being in the vanguard of the belly-putter movement. The then top-ranked junior first grabbed a long wand in a pro shop as a joke, but by his freshman season at Wake Forest he had become a convert. Simpson used to have very active hands when putting, and the belly has quieted them without reducing any of his deadly touch.
With his sudden riches it's easy to fret that Simpson will become too content to build on his star-making season. He does keep Bible and C.S. Lewis apps on his iPhone to help him stay grounded, but more important is a drive to maximize his considerable talent. At the end of 2010, when Simpson had barely kept his job, he signed up trainer Jeff Banaszak to devise a strength and conditioning program that Simpson now follows religiously. Asked back then what his goals were, Simpson said (according to Golf World), "Be mentioned among the greatest players in the world and work to attain the No. 1 [spot] in the World Ranking." Back then it seemed a fanciful notion. Now, after a year of great play, Simpson is already there.
And as all those near-misses proved, there are still plenty more victories out there for him.