Here are a few things Webb Simpson learned as a rookie in last year’s Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club.
• Don’t be surprised if the greens suddenly speed up without warning.
• Don’t press for birdies or you’ll make bogey or worse.
• He can win the tournament.
“Yes,” Simpson said when asked whether he could win at Augusta National. “I love the golf course so much. It’s my favorite course in the world. It sets up great for me. Tee to green, it suits my eye so well. I love the doglegs. I grew up with pine trees so it just fits my eye so nice. It just takes some time to learn it and get adjusted to it and respond to it.”
Said Simpson’s caddie, Paul Tesori: “I think he learned he can win. He hit the ball last year probably as good as anybody in the field. He was last in putts for the week. ... I think he learned what he has to do to win there. He just has to get comfortable there.”
Simpson, who went on to win his first major championship at the U.S. Open two months later, wasn’t overwhelmed by his first Masters.
“I was nervous as can be the first round, but I was ready,” he said. “It was something I’d wanted to do since I was a little kid.”
What he wasn’t ready for was the change in the speed of the greens.
“Early in the week the greens were soft and slower and then kind of got quick overnight,” Simpson said. “It was tough for me to get used to it.”
The greens “were extremely slow Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday” because of wet conditions, Tesori said. “All of a sudden, Saturday came and they weren’t slow anymore. Webb never got a good feel for the greens all week.”
For the week, Simpson tied for fourth in greens in regulation and tied for seventh in fairways hit.
Tesori, who will work his 11th Masters this year, was surprised by the slow greens early on.
“Generally at Augusta week, Tuesday’s the fastest they play all week,” he said. “They almost have that purple color. They need to make sure they can get them there, then they back off. They like to control the winning score. They don’t want 1-over to win anymore, and they also don’t want 18-under to win, so generally Thursday and Friday will be a little softer conditions and slower greens. They see where the scores are, then they kind of make adjustments.
“Last year, they were quite slow on Monday and Tuesday. You had to hit putts, which you don’t do at Augusta very often.”
The change in speed spoiled all the hard work Simpson had put in before the tournament.
“He felt very comfortable,” Tesori said. “He went up and played enough, and we played nine holes every day – Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. By the time the tournament came, he felt extremely prepared.
“Again, because the greens were slow, there was no way a first-timer could really challenge there because they had never seen the greens that way.”
Still, Simpson opened with rounds of 72-74-70 and was tied for 24th after 54 holes, nine shots off the lead. He dropped into a tie for 44th place after a final-round 78, a score that beat only five players that day.
“I was in a position where I probably couldn’t have won unless I shot something really low,” Simpson said. “It turns out I couldn’t have been able to do it anyway. We all try to play our best on Sunday, and Sunday at Augusta is tough to shoot a low number. I learned a lot that day. I realized you can’t really press when you’re at Augusta.”
But press to shoot a low score is what he did, starting with the first hole in the final round.
“We tried to force some things,” Tesori said.
After Simpson’s tee shot on No. 1 hit a tree in the left rough, he and Tesori elected to go through a gap between trees to reach the green. Instead, the shot hit another tree. It led to a triple bogey.
“We made a really poor decision,” Tesori said.
By doing that, Tesori said, he and Simpson broke a cardinal Augusta National rule.
“You don’t have to play perfect golf there,” Tesori said, “but you have to think perfectly.”
Simpson won’t have to worry about earning a spot in the Masters field at least until 2018. His U.S. Open victory gives him a five-year exemption.
In addition to his major championship, Simpson has two PGA Tour victories (both in 2011, when he finished second in the FedEx Cup race).
“We’re just trying to get opportunities to win,” said Tesori, a veteran caddie whose former players include Vijay Singh, Sean O’Hair and Jerry Kelly. “I always say if you get 10 opportunities in a year, you’re going to accidently close two of them and that’s a great year.”
At the U.S. Open at Olympic Club in San Francisco in June, Simpson entered the final round trailing Jim Furyk and Graeme McDowell by four strokes, His final round 2-under-par 68 gave him a one-stroke win over McDowell and Michael Thompson.
“If I was honest with you, I believed in myself I could win a major, but maybe not so soon,” said Simpson, who was 26 at the time. “I gained all the respect for the guys who have won multiple majors, because it’s so hard to do. The level of pressure is so much greater than a regular event.”