Narrowing his focus has helped the 35-year-old thrive
- Webb Simpson’s winning highlights from Waste Management Phoenix Open
How is a 35-year-old father of five, especially one who ranks in the bottom half of the PGA TOUR in driving distance, one of the best players in the world? It’s a valid inquiry in an era dominated by big hitters who’ve never changed a diaper.
Webb Simpson is an outlier among today’s top players, for factors ranging from the physical to familial.
Simpson, 35, is ninth in the world ranking. The eight players ahead of him have an average age of 28. Only Dustin Johnson, 36, is older, and 31-year-old Rory McIlroy is the only other one in his 30s.
Simpson averaged 296.2 yards off the tee last season. The eight players ahead of him averaged nearly 12 yards longer and only one other, Collin Morikawa, averaged less than 300.
And Simpson has more kids (5) than those eight players combined (3).
Simpson has been in the top 25 of the world ranking since his win at the 2018 PLAYERS Championship. He cracked the top 10 after his win at last year’s Waste Management Phoenix Open. He has been among that elite group ever since.
He birdied the final two holes at TPC Scottsdale to tie Tony Finau, one of the TOUR’s longest hitters, before beating him with a birdie on the first extra hole. Simpson also won the second event of the TOUR’s Return to Golf, the RBC Heritage. It was his first multi-win season since 2011 and led to a 12th-place finish in the FedExCup.
Simpson’s secret? Less is more.
It turns out Rory McIlroy isn’t the only TOUR player who enjoyed the book Essentialism. Simpson read it about five years ago and its teaching resonated with him.
“People who make a dent in this world aren’t people who are good at a lot of things, but are great at a few,” Simpson said. “That’s helped me be productive in what God has called me to.”
He used to over-extend himself in an attempt to please everyone. The book helped him narrow his focus and set priorities, both personal and professional. “Instead of being a good friend to 100 people, I want to be a great friend to 15,” he said. In golf, the philosophy impacts everything from what tournaments he plays to how much he practices.
Simpson has slowly pared down his schedule over the past few seasons. He focuses on courses that fit his game and tries to avoid being away from his family for more than two consecutive weeks. He played just 14 events last season, but had eight top-10s, including five top-three finishes. Playing less helps him feel energized when he arrives at an event and grateful for the opportunity, he said.
Only Tyrrell Hatton (11) qualified for last year’s TOUR Championship in fewer starts.
When Simpson is home, he practices just two or three days per week. He actually spends more time with his trainer, Cornel Driessen, than at the course. Simpson used to feel guilty about leaving the house but his wife, Dowd, has encouraged him to be “all-in where his feet are.”
“I get more done in three hours of golf than I used to in a day because I have a gameplan,” he said. “The night before, I know what I am going to work on, for how long and how I am going to work on it. I go into it with a plan, with no distractions while I’m doing it.
“And when I get home, my golf stays in the garage with my clubs.”
The book also helped him focus on a few specific steps he could take to play his best. He knows he’ll never be one of the longest hitters but he consistently ranks in the top 25 of Strokes Gained: Approach and Around-the-Green. To fortify those areas, he started working with instructor Butch Harmon and short-game coach Pat Goss in 2015. Once he found the arm-lock putting method, he returned to the game’s elite. He started working with sports psychologist John Silva in 2016 and Driessen in 2017.
He formed this team during the toughest years of his career, when he was famously struggling with the transition from the belly putter. Simpson won four times from 2011-13, including the 2012 U.S. Open, but endured a 4 1/2-year winless drought before his victory at TPC Sawgrass.
“In 10 years, I’m never going to look back and wish I’d won this tournament or that tournament,” Simpson said. “It’s going to be, ‘Did I get the most out of the talent I was given?’”
He has qualified for the last four TOUR Championships after failing to make East Lake in 2015 and ’16. He played in the 2018 Ryder Cup and 2019 Presidents Cup after missing three consecutive team events, as well.
Last season, he was sixth in Strokes Gained: Approach, 13th in SG: Putting and 32nd in SG: Around-the-Green last season. His caddie, Paul Tesori, said he’s a better all-around player than in 2011 and 2012, when he won three times, including the U.S. Open. His efficient approach to playing and practicing also has paid dividends.
“When he feels like he’s more present at home,” Tesori said, “it gives him more joy when it is time to tee it up on TOUR.”
Last year’s win in Phoenix would not have been possible if not for his physical and mental transformation, Simpson said.
Silva, the first sports psychologist Simpson has worked with, has taught him to be patient, especially during frustrating times. Simpson was 10 off the lead after the first round at TPC Scottsdale. With eight holes remaining in his second round, he was still just one shot inside the cut line. He birdied six of his final eight holes to shoot 63, however, and followed with a 64 in the third round.
“The part of my mind that has gotten better is … just hanging in there,” he said. “In the course of 72 holes, you might figure something out and find something and then you play 27 holes in (13 under).”
Physical strength was key, as well. That paid off on two holes on TPC Scottsdale’s front nine, where it’s easy to overlook a player’s performance. According to Tesori, Simpson’s weight has increased from 174 pounds in 2017 to 200 today. He lost three pounds of body fat in the process. His increased strength has allowed him to summon an extra 7-8 yards off the tee when necessary and rely more on his “fairway finder” swing without leaving himself too far behind the competition.
Simpson’s average driving distance in 2020 was eight yards longer than the previous season, and he rose from 145th to 107th in that statistic.
That allowed him to hit it over a fairway bunker on TPC Scottsdale’s sixth hole that he couldn’t carry before, turning that hole into a birdie opportunity. He played it in 2 under par last year. In the second round, he pulled his tee shot on the eighth hole but carried a penal fairway bunker that used to catch his drives. His ball went into a further bunker with a shallower lip. He made birdie from that bunker.
“A year earlier, I wouldn’t have won simply because I wouldn’t have been able to carry those bunkers,” he said.
Before this week’s title defense, Simpson visited Pinehurst with his wife. The American Express was on television and Simpson turned to Dowd to express the enjoyment his new approach has given him for the game.
“I said, ‘I love golf more than I ever have,'” Simpson said. “I’m enjoying the challenge more than I ever have, and part of that is having a very simplistic approach to my game. Paul (Tesori) and I are very clear about what we’re working on. We’re not wavering from the process or trying this thing and that thing.”
So, how is a 35-year-old father of five one of the game’s top players? Turns out it’s rather simple.