PGA

Webb Simpson happily ditches Charlotte’s cold for Hawaii

Webb Simpson had a very long commute from Charlotte, NC, to Wai’alae CC on the south side of the island of Oahu for the Sony Open. In fact, he thinks it’s a longer trip than going to the British Open. But he didn’t care.  Charlotte was freezing, he said, and he was looking for a golf course he liked and some warm weather.

Simpson, you see, had an abysmal 2021. He had COVID, a neck injury that played havoc with his swing for a time and the standard, garden-variety, ordinary flu.   The neck issue resulted in average play.  That caused him to miss out on three of his favorite tournaments: the Tour Championship, Ryder Cup and the Sentry Tournament of Champions.

The good thing about 2022 is that Simpson’s neck problems are squarely in the rear-view mirror.

The injury came on suddenly at last season’s Wells Fargo. It was a Tuesday, and he had been hitting balls.  He took out a driver and after two shots, he said he felt something odd in the back of his neck.

“It didn’t really hurt, but I knew something was weird going on,” he said. “I hit another one, the same thing happened. So, I quit hitting balls, and that night, Tuesday night, it tightened up.”

The next morning it was worse.  He had to withdraw from the Pro-Am.  He got an MRI which showed some kind of bulge. He got rehabilitation treatment from his trainer for a week and a half, and by the time the PGA came around, he had very little pain.  He was able to play.

“After the PGA, it was gone. It hasn’t come back,” he added.

But any time a golfer has an injury, whether he knows it or not, he compensates with changes in the swing.  And that’s most likely what happened to nudge Simpson off his typically straight and narrow ball-striking path. He struggled until, finally, a lesson from Butch Harmon after the Shriners Children’s Open got him on the right path, literally.

“Pauli ( Paul Tesori, his caddie) and I and Butch all agreed I needed to get more on top of the golf ball and kind of shallowing out a little bit,” he explained.

He spent a month working on it, and finally, at the RSM Classic he said he had his best ball-striking round since the injury. Naturally, it was the last PGA Tour event for more than a month, so by the time January rolled around, he was ready to play with no place to go until this week.

“It gave me a lot of hope for this season,” he said about the swing modification.  That certainly explains why he would travel 4800 miles to play golf.

“Three things I’ve missed out on — the Tour Championship, Ryder Cup and Tournament of Champions — and those are my favorite events,” he said. Playing in those means you’ve had a great year, and he hadn’t.

For sure, Simpson does not want a repeat of 2021 in 2022. It’s one reason he made the lengthy trek to play one week of golf.  Of course, as with many players, it’s all about the golf course.

“I love it here. I have great memories here. And it is a golf course that if I put top five favorite courses for me and my game, this would be one of them,” he explained about his decision to make the trip.

Wai’alae CC is, by PGA Tour standards, a shorter length course at just over 7000 yards and par 70.  It features many doglegs, and it has Bermuda greens, both of which he likes. Even the wind is a good aspect for Simpson as it reminds him of Sea Island, Georgia, where Davis Love III hosts the RSM Classic.

Many bombers do not like to play the Sony Open course for the same reasons that Simpson loves it. They get frustrated because they can’t use driver very often. He can.

Simpson is an average length hitter. The layout and the strategy of the Wai’alae CC are advantageous for his game.

When deciding where to play, he also has another rule. He avoids courses with long forced carries.  He likes to use East Lake in Atlanta, site of the Tour Championship, as an example of a course that’s good for all players.  Tough, but fair.

“It’s a very long golf course,” he noted. “But we have had Jim Furyk win, Bill Haas, probably average length. Snedeker, average length. But you also have bombers win.”

Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson have all won there.

Simpson said the reason was the architecture.

“There’s no bunkers at 320,” he explained. “I try to avoid all the courses where, if you can fly it 310 to carry a bunker, then I’m not going there because I can’t fly there, and so my fairway is half the width.”

To prove the point of Wai’alae fitting Simpson’s definition of a good course for him, we only have to look at the list of winners of the Sony Open.  A few longer hitters have had success at the Sony Open, like Justin Thomas who won in 2017 with a record 72-hole score of 253 that included a first round 59. (It broke the old record of 254 set by Tommy Armour III at the 2003 Texas Open.)

Jack Nicklaus, a long hitter in his day, and the late Bruce Lietzke, another long ball specialist, are also a past winners. But most of the Sony Open champions have been medium-length hitters like Mark O’Meara, John Cook, Lanny Wadkins, Mark O’Meara and Jim Furyk.

Simpson is hoping that his plan to play the right courses for his retooled game will put him in the winner’s circle once again.

“I feel like my game is in a good spot, and I fully believe my best golf is ahead of me,” he said.