SAN FRANCISCO Enveloped in a cool, gray mist that felt like a champagne shower, Webb Simpson stood on the 18th green at The Olympic Club early Sunday evening cradling the silver U.S. Open in his left arm.
With the golf course behind him, a wall of cheering spectators around him and a new place in golf in front of him, the smile on Simpsons 26-year old face gave a glow to the darkening day.
Moments earlier, while Simpson and his pregnant wife, Dowd, watched nervously on television, Graeme McDowells 24-foot tying birdie putt had looked away at the final hole, giving the Raleigh native and Charlotte resident a place in history as the American national champion.
I couldnt be happier right now, said Simpson, who joined Raymond Floyd as the only North Carolina natives to win the U.S. Open.
Theres an old saying that you dont win the Open, the Open wins you. Not in Simpsons case.
He shot 68-68 on the weekend, brilliant considering the conditions, taking the fight to the Olympic Club and every other player, grabbing hold of a championship that could have belonged to any one of a dozen players on Sunday.
Instead, it went to Simpson, who played in his first major championship 12 months ago at Congressional Country Club outside Washington, D.C. One year and three time zones away, Simpson joined golfs exclusive clubs of major champions. He sealed it with a brilliant par save on the 18th hole, chipping his ball out of a rugged lie to within three feet of the hole for what proved to be the clinching par.
He did it where Arnold Palmer, whose name was on Simpsons Wake Forest scholarship, suffered one of the most difficult losses of his career, squandering a seven-stroke lead on the back nine in the final round of the 1966 U.S. Open at Olympic, losing to Billy Casper.
To win here with what happened to him, I hope he can smile, said Simpson, a Quail Hollow Club member.
On a damp, chilly day on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, Simpson transformed the championship and his career in a five-hole stretch that started at the difficult par-4 sixth hole. He was already 2-over par for the day, having absorbed the expected body blows from the brutally tough opening stretch at Olympic, dropping him six shots behind Furyks lead.
Unlike the Wells Fargo Championship a mile from his south Charlotte home last month, Simpsons swing didnt betray him in the final round. Simpson led at Quail Hollow entering Sundays round but finished fourth largely because of an errant driver. He missed the cut in both events he played since then but an intense practice session with his caddie Paul Tesori two weeks ago fixed his flaw.
Simpsons strong suit is his tenacity and his ability to use his belly putter like a magic wand. He birdied the sixth when he hit a high left-to-right 7-iron that settled five feet from the hole. After another birdie at the short par-4 seventh, Simpson made it three in a row at the par-3 eighth hole.
In front of a hillside of fans sitting beneath Olympics sprawling stucco clubhouse, Simpson heeded the advice of Tesori to hit a 6-iron, hit it close and suddenly found himself where he wanted to be heading toward the back nine on Sunday.
On a course that sits atop the San Andreas Fault, the tournament was in the process of shifting. At the par-4 10th hole, Simpson got the kind of break champions get. Planning to play his approach shot 15 feet right of the hole, Simpson tugged it slightly and it stopped four feet away for what proved to be the decisive birdie.
He felt the moment.
Ive never felt nerves like I did today, Simpson said. A couple of times I had to hit my legs because I couldnt feel them.
By the back nine, with the areas famous marine layer blowing across the course like campfire smoke, every swing increasingly mattered and the storyline pendelumed back and forth among several players.
In a three-minute span, the championship seemed headed one way then, suddenly, it went a different direction.
Simpson was on the par-3 15th green, looking at a 12-foot birdie putt to get to even-par for the championship and in a tie with Furyk, who was three holes behind him.
At the same time, Furyk was facing his own 35-foot par putt after his approach shot at 12 found an awkward lie in the bunker. It was a potential two-shot swing that could have catapulted Simpson into the lead. Instead, he missed and, seconds later, Furyk poured in the long par putt, fist pumping it in the hole.
McDowell followed with an 18-foot birdie putt and suddenly he was tied with Simpson, having pulled within a stroke not long after he had trailed by four.
All the while, Michael Thompson was in the clubhouse at 2-over par, waiting to see if anyone could beat him.
He made it relatively easy on himself, stringing together two-putt pars from the 11th hole through the 17th. It left him needing a par at the 344-yard 18th. The wind blew his 5-iron tee shot into the left rough and his approach shot settled into a grass-knotted hole just off the right side of the putting surface.
The worst lie Ive ever seen in professional golf, Tesori said. I gave him a one-in-five chance (of saving par).
Simpson pulled it off.
It got my hands shaking a little bit but I knocked it in, he said.
Furyk, tied with McDowell when the final round began, didnt make a birdie Sunday while shooting 74. A snap-hook tee shot at the par-5 16th led to a bogey that dropped him a stroke behind Simpson and he closed with an ugly bogey at the 18th, never giving himself a putt to tie.
I dont know how to put that one into words, Furyk said when asked how disappointed he was. It was my tournament to win.
McDowell, meanwhile, was the last man standing who could force a Monday playoff. But expecting his 24-foot downhill birdie putt to drift gently left to right, it stayed straight, ending the suspense.
Amazed, Simpson said. Ive got no words.