PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Webb Simpson said he did not know what the record was or how close he was to breaking it. So, he had no idea how disappointed he could have been.
Even when he learned for sure, he still was not upset. Shooting a 63, tying the course record at the respected TPC Sawgrass and holding a five-stroke lead in The Players, one of the biggest tournaments of the year, was good enough for him.
“I mean, I’m 15 under through two days here, which is a lot lower than I ever would have expected to be,” he said after the second round. “So, I’m just looking forward to getting some good dinner and some rest and coming out and enjoying it tomorrow.”
He enjoyed it plenty on Friday, despite having seen his sand wedge shot on the famous (or infamous) par-3 17th hole drift a little right, bounce high in the air and land in the water. He made double bogey 5 there and eventually settled for sharing the low 18 hole mark with Fred Couples, Greg Norman, Roberto Castro, Martin Kaymer, Jason Day and Colt Knost.
Simpson’s chase for history was the top end of drama late in the day. At the other end was the fact that the projected cut line kept going back and forth from 2 under to 1 under. That was particularly interesting in that Tiger Woods had finished hours earlier with the latter score. Ultimately, 1 under made it, meaning he will be around for the weekend, unlike the other members in his high-voltage threesome, Rickie Fowler (1 over) and Phil Mickelson (8 over).
After shooting 9 under on Friday, Simpson is five ahead of Charl Schwartzel, Patrick Cantlay and Danny Lee. That is just fine for a golfer who has not won since 2013 and whose livelihood seemed in serious jeopardy when the ban on anchoring a putter went into effect. Paul Tesori, Simpson’s caddie, said, “I almost get emotional sometimes. I was there those 2 1⁄2 years post-ban when Webber dropped to 190th in putting. He tried everything imaginable.”
It was at this tournament one year ago that, at the suggestion of fellow pro and friend Tim Clark, that Simpson tried the claw putting grip. Without so much as a full practice round, the 2012 U.S. Open champion took it into competition and instantly liked it.
“It turned his whole season around and now it looks like it has turned his career around,” Tesori said. “It’s nothing short of miraculous. We appreciate it now more than we ever did. He’s playing better now even than he did in his prime.”
Simpson was on such a roll, making birdie on every hole from the 11th through the 16th, that his playing companions, Jhonattan Vegas and Tyrrell Hatton, just laughed. When Tesori realized that his boss was 10 under for the round, he tried to make everything seem normal.
“I was going through my Rolodex of things to say,” the caddie said. “We were talking about the house at home, maybe building an addition. We were talking about the kids, they have a bunch of birthdays.”
The problem is, there is nothing normal about No. 17 and its island green. “We’re leaving here, trying not to be a little disappointed,” Tesori said, “but you can’t think like that.”