Midtown: Sports

Simpson makes his Masters debut

The 12-year-old wanted a putter. And not just any putter.

The sandy blond boy wanted a new 1998 Scotty Cameron putter, a Newport model with a Teryllium insert, its head as black as night, dotted with white circles on the back. The pro shop at Carolina Country Club back home in Raleigh hadn’t gotten this putter yet, but there it was. In the pro shop at Augusta National.

Webb Simpson, not quite a teenager but already a golfer beyond his years, had come to Augusta National for the first time and before he hit his opening tee shot, he had an instant crush on a putter.

He asked his father, Sam, if he would buy it for him. If not that day, maybe for Christmas, his father remembers.

The putter cost more than $200, and Sam Simpson made a deal with his son. Shoot 76 at Augusta National and he would buy his son the putter.

Fourteen years later, with him playing in his first Masters, Webb Simpson remembers many of the details of his first trip to Augusta National.

It’s different this week with the crowds gathered, the roars ready to rumble up from the valley down around Amen Corner and the Masters alive again.

There are hand-placed numbers telling the story on big white scoreboards around the property and a green jacket awaiting the champion.

There are legendary golfers Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player – forever young at Augusta – hitting the ceremonial tee shots on the first tee this morning. And there’s the feeling that comes only at Augusta in April, a sense that something special is happening.

“Augusta, to me, is the coolest place ever,” says Simpson, 26.

Final preparation

Now the 10th-ranked golfer in the world who played at Broughton High School, Simpson made a handful of trips to Augusta National in recent years and he’s spent three days this week putting the finishing touches on his preparation.

On Thursday, Webb shot an even par 72 to start the tournament in 29th place.

Simpson was followed in the gallery by his father and his long-time teacher Ted Keigel, the two men who brought him to Augusta for the first time in 1998.

Sam Simpson attended his first Masters in 1962 and introduced his son early on to what Augusta National and the tournament mean to the game. Keigel, meanwhile, had been an assistant pro at Augusta National before moving to Raleigh in the mid-1990s and arranged the trip, sensing the 12-year-old Simpson had a game that could handle the challenge.

“He was slim and he would have his Big Bertha driver and he’d hit it 180 yards down the middle. Never missed a fairway,” Keigel says. “He could chip and putt very well and he thought it was normal to make 30- and 40-footers like it was no big deal. You could see he had all that talent.”

Webb Simpson loved the place immediately.

“It was way more beautiful than I thought and everything about it was just so … awesome,” he says. “To play it when I was that young was such a cool thing.”

Simpson doesn’t remember his score on every hole from the first time he played Augusta National, but he remembers the pars he made on the back-nine par-3s, Nos. 12 and 16. He also remembers walking to the 18th tee at 8 over par, his chance of shooting 76 to get his new putter gone.

Tough when needed

With his Polo outfits, his polite manner and soft Southern drawl, Simpson doesn’t look like a street fighter. But put a golf club in his hand and Simpson is tenacious.

He’s long but not super-long off the tee with a 288.9-yard driving average, ranking 67th on tour; his swing is good but not elegant; he putts with one end of his putter wedged into his belly button. And for the past year, there have been few golfers in the world better.

Last year, Simpson won twice, had three second-place finishes and wound up second in the FedEx Cup race and on the money list with more than $6 million in earnings.

This year, he has three top-10 finishes in seven starts, including a tie for third in the season-opening Hyundai Tournament of Champions.

He recently ironed out an unwanted wrinkle that had crept into his swing and caused him to miss too many fairways. Though he closed with a disappointing 78 in tough conditions in the final round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational last week after beginning the final round on the edge of contention, Simpson arrived at Augusta still flush with confidence.

“The state of his game is in a good place,” says Paul Tesori, who will be caddying in his 11th Masters but first with Simpson.

During their practice session Monday, Tesori told a story from 2010 when he worked for Sean O’Hair. During a practice round with Phil Mickelson at Augusta, Tesori heard the three-time Masters champ tell O’Hair to resist the urge to be perfect. There’s room off the tee at Augusta National to let shots drift, but it’s critical to understand where not to go.

For example, treat the bunker on the left front of the first green like a water hazard, Mickelson told O’Hair.

“Take the bad stuff out,” Tesori says.

The balance between being too careful and too aggressive was Simpson’s challenge.

“I have to fight trying to be too perfect,” he says. “You can start paralyzing yourself if you try to be too perfect.”

The goal, Simpson says, is to treat the Masters like any other four-day golf tournament. He thinks of actor Gene Hackman as coach Norman Dale in the movie “Hoosiers,” pointing out to his team before the state championship that the basketball goal is still 10 feet tall and the foul line is still 15 feet away regardless of the arena.

Still, it’s the Masters, his first one.

“It’s a dream come true for him,” Sam Simpson says. “He’s been pushing toward this since he picked up a club at 8 years old. I would bet there hasn’t been a week that’s gone by that he hasn’t thought about playing in the Masters.”

Now it’s here.

“I remember being on the putting green as a kid and always telling yourself you had this putt to win the Masters,” Simpson says. “No offense to the PGA or the British Open, but I never had a putt to win those (major championships). I always had a putt to win the Masters.”

Another challenge

When Simpson got to the 18th tee as a 12-year-old, his goal of shooting 76 gone, his father Sam made him another offer.

Birdie the long, uphill par-4 and he would buy his son the putter.

Webb Simpson ripped another tee shot down the middle and then rifled his 3-wood second shot up the hill to the green where the hole was cut in its traditional Sunday location on the front left portion of the green. His shot settled 4 feet away from a birdie, a 79 and a new putter.

Simpson missed the putt. He parred the 18th hole and shot 80 in his first trip around Augusta National.

Sam Simpson bought his son the putter anyway, a souvenir for the memories.

“I still have the putter,” Webb Simpson says.

And all that goes with it.