While Rory McIlroy was striding through the muggy spring sunshine Saturday, conjuring up memories of his breakthrough moment two years ago at the Wells Fargo Championship, and seemingly everyone else was trying to fit their name atop the leader board at Quail Hollow Club, Webb Simpson kept being Webb Simpson.
He continued playing host to house guest and second-round leader Nick Watney in the morning, made the 1-mile drive to Quail Hollow, then spent the afternoon locked in his own world, piecing together a third-round 69 that earned him a one-stroke lead over Ryan Moore and D.A. Points with 18 holes remaining at his home club.
Simpson, who graduated from Broughton and is a club member of Quail Hollow, couldn’t hold his lead Sunday and was undone by a disobedient driver that left him one shot short of the three-man playoff.
Rickie Fowler’s sudden-death victory over McIlroy and Points was his first on the PGA Tour. Fowler won the $1.17 million paycheck.
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In a lot of ways though, Simpson played his best day at Quail Hollow on Saturday.
While others were more spectacular that day – McIlroy’s 66 included a tee shot at the par-4 16th that went so far it bounced into spectators crossing the fairway and a drive at the 18th hole that bounced off the wallet tucked into a pocket on a spectator’s backside – Simpson was his usual relentless self.
If Simpson’s game isn’t as classically stylish as McIlroy’s or as colorful as Fowler’s (who entered Sunday three back), it’s as doggedly resilient as any in recent months. He hit only 18 of 42 fairways through the first three rounds. Simpson needed only 86 putts in 54 holes. He hadn’t had a three-putt green in 210 holes, the longest current streak on tour.
As the sun began to slant across Quail Hollow late Saturday, Simpson did his best work.
He turned a bad tee shot at the par-5 15th into a make-it-happen moment that resulted in a birdie that earned him a share of the lead. Two holes later, Simpson birdied the dangerous par-3 17th with a 21-foot putt that sent him home with the lead to talk about over another dinner of takeout.
“I don’t want to get ahead of myself,” said Simpson, who was at 14-under-par 202 through three rounds. “There’s so many players within a shot or two, so I know it’s going to be a tough day. I know I can go out and shoot 4 under and get beat by two or three.
“You saw McIlroy (two) years ago shoot 10 under (62). Knowing that, my expectations aren’t too high. Obviously, I want to go out there and try to win, but all I can do is control what we’re doing.”
Control has been critical to Simpson’s success to this point. He confessed to being nervous when he saw he was paired with Tiger Woods in the first two rounds, but he handled it beautifully, beating Woods by 11 shots over two days. While Woods went home Friday with his game needing more work, Simpson went home Saturday night with the lead.
Simpson said a friend texted a Bible story to him earlier this week and he has used it like a mantra on the course. It’s the story of Gideon, being called by God to help his people.
“The picture I look at is God uses the weak to make his name look great,” Simpson said. “I felt pretty weak and helpless the other day with that tee time (with Woods), being my home crowd, my home course, all the pressure was kind of mounting.
“Truthfully, it really calmed me down.”