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Webb Simpson brings momentum to Pinehurst

Webb Simpson’s golf game might be returning to form at precisely the right time.

After months of struggle, Simpson – a Raleigh native who makes his home in Charlotte – tied for third in last week’s St. Jude Classic in Memphis, Tenn., providing him a solid platform to jump into this week’s U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2.

“The last couple of months have been a little bit of a struggle, yes,” Simpson said before the Memphis tournament. “But my goal every year is to just get better by the end of the season. Even if I don’t win, or don’t make the Ryder Cup team, as long as I feel like I’m getting better, that’s the important thing.”

Simpson, a former Wake Forest golfer who won the 2012 U.S. Open at San Francisco’s Olympic Club, started this PGA Tour season quickly. He won October’s Shriners Hospital for Children Open in Las Vegas and followed that with five top-10 finishes in his next seven tournaments. He spent one week on top of the FedEx Cup standings.

After that, however, Simpson’s game slipped. He missed three cuts – including the Masters and Players – in six tournaments.

His best finish over that stretch was a tie for 38th at the Wells Fargo Championship at Charlotte’s Quail Hollow Club. Entering last week’s tournament in Memphis – the first he’d played since the birth of his third child during May – Simpson was 33rd in the world, his lowest ranking since 2011, the year he hit it big on the PGA Tour.

After his Memphis performance, he has inched up to 31st as he prepares for the U.S. Open in his home state.

The question now becomes: Will whatever Simpson rediscovered in his game in Memphis carry over to Pinehurst and through the remainder of the season?

As well as things were going to begin this season, there were danger signals in Simpson’s game that were being overlooked.

“Looking back, there were some signs,” said Paul Tesori, Simpson’s caddy of four years. “There might have been some bad habits that were forming. But when you’re playing well, you don’t want to change. Ernie Els has said in golf you try to run out your good play, run it out as long as you can.

“We finally ran out of the good play.”

The Masters served as a microcosm of his season. He birdied the first three holes but couldn’t sustain it. He was 5 over par after two rounds and didn’t make it to the weekend.

“Starting with three birdies says you’re mentally good enough to play well at Augusta,” Tesori said. “But then he got to the fifth and chipped off the green for a double (bogey). On 15 he went into the water for another double (bogey). Those are things we don’t normally do. We’d made a habit of never doing those things. But it’s a great example of how up and down we’ve been.”

Simpson said some of the inconsistency came from new equipment to which he still is getting accustomed. And he has worked on fixing some of those bad habits he fell into during the early-season West Coast swing.

“I switched irons a couple of months ago,” Simpson said. “I was playing with a really old blade. I wanted something to shape and slice the ball appropriately, but that would still give me some forgiveness. So we’re doing some tinkering here and there.”

Adding to family

Another possible reason for Simpson’s slide might have been from the welcome distraction of preparing for the birth of his and wife Dowd’s third child, Wyndham Rose. The baby was born May 12 and named after Greensboro’s Wyndham Championship, Simpson’s first PGA Tour victory in 2011. The Simpsons also will move from their south Charlotte home to one at Quail Hollow this month.

“There’s been a lot of things happening in my life, that’s for sure,” Simpson said.

After Wyndham’s birth, Simpson took three weeks off with his family before returning last week to play in Memphis. During his time away from competition, he practiced for a few days with Tesori in Pinehurst and Charlotte. It was the first time Simpson had played No. 2 since changes that have taken the rough off the course and added more natural areas.

Simpson has a long and emotional connection to Pinehurst. His family owns a home in the Sandhills area and he often traveled between there and Raleigh with his dad while growing up.

“That’s his baby,” Tesori said of Pinehurst No. 2.

Said Simpson: “I love the style of No. 2. You don’t have to be too long off the tee. Everything happens on approach shots and on the green.

“It’ll be great. I already have two hometown events (Greensboro and Charlotte), so this will be a third this year. I’m excited about that.”

The Simpsons’ second child, Willow Grace, was born shortly after he won the 2012 U.S. Open. Simpson took some time off then, too, but his first tournament back was the PGA Championship, where he missed the cut.

“The last time we had a baby, my first tournament back was a major and that didn’t work out too well,” Simpson said. “I think that by playing at Memphis and getting one under my belt, I’ll be fine at Pinehurst.”

Have the kinks been worked out for the U.S. Open? Simpson says what’s most important is that he’s making progress.

“There are two kinds of slumps,” Simpson said. “One is where you’re not seeing results and you’re not confident at all. The other is when you’re not getting results but feel like you’re on the right track. That’s where I feel I am right now.”

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