Webb Simpson will prepare for the 113th U.S. Open not with a last-minute video session or extra range balls, but with a simultaneously loose and freighted getaway to an undisclosed location in North Carolina with seven of his closest friends. The so-called guys' trip, a ritual the week before the Open, will include competitive golf, but of the type that may demand contestants skip shots across a water hazard. There will be beer, but only in moderation. There will be Bible study and plenty of grilled pizza, the big surprise at last year's trip to Pinehurst.
"One of my buddies from Charlotte, Doug Rose, made it, and he was quickly welcomed to the group after everybody tasted it," Simpson says. "It was unbelievable. Doug's got vegetables he brings from his backyard, fresh mozzarella. It's basically thin-crust pizza. I've learned how to make it, but only with Doug as my wing man."
If grilled pizza and male bonding seem like an odd way to cram for the U.S. Open, you can't argue with success. This will be Simpson's third such trip, and the first two junkets preceded a 14th-place finish (first Open, Congressional, 2011) and a victory (Olympic Club, 2012). The trip is peaceful and grounding, an inoculation against U.S. Open chaos.
Since shocking the world at Olympic, where his wife, Dowd, walked most of the holes despite being 35 weeks pregnant, Simpson, 27, has become a father for the second time, to Willow Grace, born last July. He went 2-2-0 at his first Ryder Cup, which he says was even more intense than advertised. He has learned to deal with increased demands on his time and overheard fewer moms on the autograph lines whispering to their kids, "I don't know who he is."
Other than that, though, he's the same guy. He and Dowd still live in the same reasonably sized house in Charlotte. Webb found a man who may have come from a nearby construction site wandering around his garage one day, but if that's the price of fame, so be it. Fame also means talking to junior golfers about his faith and Tour life, and cohosting a College Golf Fellowship event for 60 with fellow pro Scott Stallings.
"Webb is still Webb — he hasn't changed one bit," says Will Kane, a guys' trip regular who used to caddie for Simpson and is now a pastor in Savannah.
Zach Johnson credits not only Webb but also Team Simpson, whose nucleus includes Dowd and caddie Paul Tesori. "Winning a major at that age, and now with two kids — it's a curveball," says Johnson, who won the 2007 Masters at age 31. "But the beauty of what the Simpsons have — I don't want to compare them to us, but I had a recent conversation with him — and the way they filter things and go through their decision-making is much like myself and our team."
By his own admission Simpson has been inconsistent between the ropes in 2013. A week after missing the cut at the Masters, he lost a playoff to Graeme McDowell at the RBC at Hilton Head. In the second round of the Players at TPC Sawgrass, Simpson dumped his tee shot into the pot bunker in front of the 17th green but jarred his bunker shot, then flirted with the lead on Saturday. In 14 starts he has one more missed cut (four) than he has top 10 finishes.
"I love his guts," says Ben Crane, another of Simpson's best friends on Tour. "I think that's the best part about his game. When he gets near the lead, he's a bulldog."
Simpson's swing isn't pretty, but he can score. Exhibit A: his clutch up-and-down from the gunk off the 72nd green at Olympic. He knows what he does well. He knows himself. For that he can give at least partial thanks to the aptly timed guys' trip, which comes immediately before what is arguably the roughest, toughest tournament of the year. While the British Open on a sunny, windless day will throw an arm around your shoulders and tousle your hair, the U.S. Open in any weather will try to punch you in the nose as if to ask, Who are you to think you can win? If you want to hoist the trophy, you'd better have your answer and you'd better be prepared to deliver it on command.
"We'll have a beer or two," Simpson says of the trip, "but it's not about drinking beer. The focus is on each other. We got this advice from a couple of other guys — that we need to come home from the trip rested and ready to serve our families well."
Adds Kane, "The trip is a very transparent, safe place to say, 'Hey, how's your marriage, what are you struggling with?' and to be involved in each other's lives and hold each other accountable. We'll have putting contests and watch the NBA playoffs. We may go out on the boat this year."
"We need to patent it," says Dave Owen, Simpson's mentor and a pastor in Raleigh. Owen, who officiated at the Webb-Dowd wedding, promises something new for this year: oatmeal-buttermilk pancakes. "They sustain you all day," he says, "and hopefully you make a few birdies."
Magic flapjacks will not leave Simpson impervious to distraction — he'll just be better prepared for it. Last year he called Dowd on the Monday of U.S. Open week to learn that James, their son, had just taken his first steps while Dad was thousands of miles away in San Francisco. Tesori noticed the boss was not himself.
"He was grumpy," Tesori says. "He was a little bit short with me, first time ever. I talked to my wife. I said, 'Baby, I don't know if I said something that rubbed him wrong or what.' But Webb and I talked about it the next day, and he explained what had happened and apologized and said he didn't want to be there. We agreed he should take half of Tuesday off and regroup."
He did that and then some. Dowd left James with her parents and got to Olympic on Wednesday. She and Webb had date nights and talked about life in all its wonderful, dizzying complexity. After being perhaps the only one through 36 holes who thought he could win, Simpson closed with a pair of 68s to prevail by a shot over McDowell and Michael Thompson.
"By the weekend," Tesori says, "in the most stressful situation of his life, Webb was as calm as I'd seen him. It was one of the coolest transformations I've ever seen."
Glory to God and pass the maple syrup; long live the guys' trip.