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Simpson bests tested champions for US Open title

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ANTONIO GONZALEZ
June 18, 2012
— The U.S. Open yields few birdies or big celebrations.

At Olympic Club, they always come in strange places.


Webb Simpson walked off the 18th green on a fog-filled Sunday evening with his face red and his legs limp, settling into a corner of the locker room to recover with his worried wife and watch Jim Furyk and Graeme McDowell chase his 1-over par 281 on the course.


After a week that restored the toughest test in golf, this was not the look or score of a mediocre man.


This was the 112th U.S. Open champion.


Simpson saved par from the collar around the 18th green and sweated out a pair of past champions three groups behind, becoming the latest to claim his first major title at a club that always crowns the guy nobody expects to win.


"To be honest," Simpson said, "I never thought about, and I never really wrapped my mind around winning."


With the history here, he should have known better.


Olympic Club is called the "graveyard of champions" for a reason. Proven major winners who were poised to win the U.S. Open Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson and Payne Stewart all lost out to the underdog. And all in a painful finish.


Perhaps it was only fitting that the 25-year-old Simpson went to Wake Forest on a Palmer scholarship.


"Arnold has been so good to me," Simpson said. "Just the other day, I read that story and thought about it. He's meant so much to me and Wake Forest. Hopefully, I can get a little back for him and make him smile."


Simpson did his part in the latest familiar chapter at a club that dates to 1860.


The North Carolina native emerged from the famous fog that blanketed the undulating Lake Course to make four birdies in a five-hole stretch around the turn on the final day, and convert a tough par from the thick grass around the tiny 18th green. He shot a 2-under 68 that created more pressure than two tested champions and a 14-time major winner wearing red could handle.


Furyk was flawless for much of the week until he snap-hooked his tee shot on the par-5 16th hole to fall out of the lead for the first time all day. He never got it back. Needing a birdie on the final hole, his approach landed in the bunker. He crouched and clamped his teeth onto the shaft of his wedge.


Furyk made bogey on the final hole and closed with a 74.


"I don't know how to put that one into words," said Furyk, the 2003 U.S. Open champion at Olympia Fields outside Chicago, "but I had my opportunities and my chances and it was right there. It was, on that back nine, it was my tournament to win and I felt like if I went out there and shot even par, 1 under, I would have distanced myself from the field. And I wasn't able to do so."


Neither was his playing partner.


McDowell, the champion two years ago down the California coast at Pebble Beach, made four bogeys on the front nine. The Northern Irishman at least gave himself a chance with a 20-foot birdie putt on the 17th and a shot into the 18th that had him sprinting up the hill to see what kind of chance he had.


The putt from about 25 feet stayed left of the hole the entire way. He settled for a 73 and shared second place with Michael Thompson, who closed with a 67 and waited two hours to see if it would be good enough.


Tiger Woods, starting five shots behind, played the first six holes in 6-over par and was never a factor. He shot 73 and finished six strokes back.


"There's a mixture of emotions inside me," McDowell said. "Disappointment, deflation, pride. But mostly, just frustration."


That was the kind of week the U.S. Golf Association delivered.


After Rory McIlroy shattered championship records last year at rain-softened Congressional, dry conditions at the Lake Course in San Francisco restored "golf's toughest test" and then some.


McIlroy, Masters winner Bubba Watson and top-ranked Luke Donald all missed the cut. So did last week's winner at Memphis, Dustin Johnson, and 2010 British Open champion Louis Oosthuizen.


Of the last 18 players to tee off in the final round, Simpson was the only one to break par. He also was the lone player to shoot two rounds in the 60s on the weekend, closing with a pair of 68s.


That didn't seem likely when Simpson was six shots behind as he headed to the sixth hole, which played the toughest at Olympic. That's where he started his big run.


Simpson's 7-iron shot landed in the rough and rolled 5 feet away for birdie. He birdied the next two holes, including a 15-footer on the par-3 eighth. And his wedge shot into the 10th settled 3 feet away, putting him in the mix for the rest of the day.


"It was a cool day," Simpson said. "I had a peace all day. I knew it was a tough golf course. I probably prayed more the last three holes than I ever did in my life."


Simpson's approach from the fairway rough on No. 18 went just right of the green and disappeared into a hole, a circle of dirt about the size of a sprinkler cap. With a clump of grass behind the ball, he had a bold stroke for such a nervy shot and it came out perfectly, rolling 3 feet by the hole for his much-needed par.


Then, it was time to wait.


It was the third time in the last seven years that no one broke par in the U.S. Open. On all three occasions, the winner was in the locker room when the tournament ended.


The best bit of drama from the winner came from a chair. He seemed somewhat calm but his blonde-haired wife, Dowd, had her eyes wide open, squeezing his arm and covering her mouth watching Furyk and McDowell play the last three holes.


After McDowell's putt to force an 18-hole playoff was off, they shared a hug and a kiss. Simpson whispered a few words in his wife's ear "I don't think you'll be able to sleep now," he said and stayed sitting for several seconds.


"When Graeme missed on 18 and I realized I had won, I just kind of shook my head in disbelief," Simpson said. "I couldn't believe it actually happened."



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