Webb Simpson is back, a win drought that lasted almost four years vanquished, 12th in the FedEx Cup standings, getting fitted for the inevitably terrible shirts the U.S. Ryder Cup team will wear this fall.
Chesson Hadley isn’t all that far behind, 26th in the standings, having his best season on the PGA Tour since 2014. Those two, along with Grayson Murray, will represent Raleigh in this weekend’s Wyndham Championship in Greensboro, the vanguard of what might be a new golden age of golf in the Triangle.
There was Vance Heafner and then Scott Hoch and then Simpson, but for a long time the Triangle was a prodigious generator of junior and college and amateur stars who never made the leap to pro success. (Paul Simson, a multiple national amateur champion at the senior level, was the biggest star before Simpsons’s 2011 breakthrough in this tournament on his way to the U.S. Open in 2012.)
That may be on the verge of changing, with Simpson enjoying a career renaissance and Hadley established and Murray over the $1 million mark this summer and a few others knocking at the door.
Raleigh’s Doc Redman, last year’s U.S. Amateur champion, is in the field in Greensboro this week, a tour rookie. Across the country at Pebble Beach, 17-year-old Akshay Bhatia of Wake Forest is trying to follow in his footsteps at the Amateur, inching ever closer to a precocious pro career. That doesn’t include the usual handful of others on the Web.com and mini-tours, like Ben Kohles or Carter Jenkins, grinding away for their big break.
“It’s nice to see some of these guys from my hometown play great,” said Simpson, who’s playing pretty great himself with top-20 finishes in all four majors to go with his win at The Players Championship in May.
It’s as strong a group as the Triangle has had in the pipeline for a long time. The question now is, who can make the jump to join Simpson and Hadley in the major leagues?
“I feel like Raleigh’s always been really, really competitive, the Triangle in general,” Hadley said. “I’ve always felt like North Carolina was super strong when it came to junior golf. Some of that is it’s just a good spot to live, there’s a bunch of kids, we’ve got tons of golf courses. Pinehurst is right there.”
Redman certainly has a chance, based on his amateur success. He has made four cuts on the PGA Tour this year, two of them before he turned pro. Barring a win this weekend, he is headed to qualifying school next month, the grueling series of tournaments that metes out status for next summer.
Bhatia, who advanced to match play at the Amateur and teed off late Wednesday, isn’t all that far behind, whether he attends college – he’s a rising high-school junior who takes online classes – or not. But he was just one of three Triangle players who were in the top 10 in points for the Junior Ryder Cup, with Wake Forest’s Grayson Wotnosky and Raleigh’s Peter Fountain right behind.
They have a long way to go to catch up with Simpson and Hadley, the kind of one-two punch at the top of the money list the Triangle has never really had. A year ago at the Wyndham, laboring away in search of another win, Simpson talked about staying patient and building faith in his game. He was rewarded in May and has put together his best summer in 2011.
“When you are successful early in your career like I was and then you go on a drought of three and a half, four years, I never doubted that I was a great player, but doubt starts to creep in,” Simpson said. “You know, ‘Am I good enough to win out here? Good enough to win consistently? So I think any win would have been great at that time, but to win in that field and that environment and play the way I did gave me tons of confidence. It’s more satisfying to win that than the U.S. Open by far, because of what I went through with putting and how long it had been.”
Hadley lost his tour card after the 2016 season and had to win his way back onto the tour last summer, which he did with a stellar Web.com season that included a rare narrow miss at the Rex Hospital Open. Even though he hasn’t won this summer, he’s done what he had to do to stay here, and will head into the playoffs with a fighting chance to keep moving forward.
“I’ve had a couple top 10s,” Hadley said. “Of late, the last month, I’ve been a little bit cool. The putter’s been a little bit cold. Just need to make a few putts this week.”
It wouldn’t be a shock to see either, or both, contend this weekend. They’re the home team, as good a one-two punch as Raleigh has had at this level, even if they may not be alone for long.