Simpson rallies to win first U.S. Open

Webb Simpson waves after chipping on the 18th

Webb Simpson waves after chipping on the 18th hole during the fourth round of the U.S. Open Championship. (June 17, 2012) (Credit: AP)

SAN FRANCISCO -- It always has been said that a U.S. Open at the Olympic Club produces a special layer of drama, surprise and heartbreak. Webb Simpson proved Sunday that it also can produce payback, even if it takes 46 years.

Simpson, who went to Wake Forest, Arnold Palmer's alma mater, on a Palmer scholarship, made all the right shots, including a steely par on the final hole to win the U.S. Open. His 1-over-par finish edged former Open champion Jim Furyk (3 over), who led for most of the day, as well as former champion Graeme McDowell and Michael Thompson (both 2 over). He did it on the course that brought Palmer one of his most heartbreaking defeats in a playoff against Billy Casper here in the 1966 Open. That was after Palmer held a seven-shot lead with nine to play.

The 26-year-old champion from Charlotte, N.C., said he read that story this week, and it hit home. "Mr. Palmer meant a lot to me," he said after shooting 68, including four birdies in a stretch of five holes before finishing with eight solid pars.

Par is huge at an Open, especially one at Olympic Club, where Jack Fleck once knocked off Ben Hogan and Casper beat Palmer. Fleck and Casper both were there Sunday as Simpson received the Jack Nicklaus Medal.

Simpson was a two-time winner on the PGA Tour last season but acknowledged that taking the next step would be difficult. Back in March, he said, "If I'm in contention, I'm sure the pressure is going to be, you know, far beyond what I feel at a normal PGA Tour event. And so I'm excited for that opportunity. I want to get in that position, and you know, I don't want to say it can't happen this year, but I think the more experience I have, the better chance I'll have to win."

He came through under the most intense pressure when, on the 18th hole, he chipped from an indentation in the thick rough and got his ball within four feet of the hole. He made the par putt to finish at 1 over par while Furyk was dealing with a hooked tee shot in the trees on No. 16 that led to a bogey that dropped him out of a tie for first. The 2003 champion never regained a share of the lead.

It ended an exciting, volatile week in which big names such as Ernie Els, Padraig Harrington, David Toms and Lee Westwood challenged but fell short. Tiger Woods started well but finished at 7 over.

"No one feels more sick than me," Furyk said, reflecting on having been unsettled to see the tee box on 16 moved up almost 100 yards from its position on Saturday. "You know what? The rest of the field had that same shot to hit today, and I'm pretty sure no one hit as [bad] a shot as I did.

"I let one slide today, but, hey, Webb went out there and got it, too. He shot 68. To do that on this golf course on a Sunday is phenomenal. He's a very good player and a good person."

The winner, having basically been hanging around all week before taking his first lead on the last hole, then had to hang around and watch 2010 champion McDowell, who lagged behind most of the day, take one last chance to tie. His 24-foot downhill birdie putt on No. 18 went left and long.

Simpson's pregnant wife, Dowd, watching on TV with her husband, looked stunned when she realized that he was a major champion.

"I needed her here because I never felt nerves like I did today," Simpson said, adding that it got so bad out there Sunday that he had to hit his legs to make sure he still had feeling in them.

He never lost touch with his short irons and his long putter, making birdies on 6, 7, 8 and 10. He held steady with pars after that. If only Palmer had done that in 1966.

"To win here, with what happened to him," Simpson said, "I hope he can smile and I hope he was watching."

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