PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — In hindsight, the skilled engraver who etches the champion’s Waterford crystal at the Players Championship could have started around lunchtime on Sunday, two hours before Webb Simpson headed to the first tee.
After all, ever since his tournament-record-tying 63 on Friday, Simpson stayed in absolute control, starting the final round with a commanding seven-shot lead. No player in the history of the PGA Tour ever had surrendered a 54-hole lead that large.
But this is T.P.C. Sawgrass and its daunting Stadium Course, the designer Pete Dye’s green-grassed house of horrors, a venue that can inject terror and disaster into otherwise peaceful Sunday afternoons. Even the world’s top golfers cannot fake their way around the Stadium Course.
Once Simpson’s golf ball landed dryly and safely on the island green at the brutish, 137-yard 17th hole, the champion’s long walk home could begin. Even a watery closing double bogey could not dampen Simpson’s march.
His day hardly was stress-free. Simpson shot one-over 73, beating Charl Schwartzel, Jimmy Walker and the Players rookie Xander Schauffele — all shot 67 — by four shots. Simpson’s 18-under 270 tied Fred Couples for lowest winner’s total since Greg Norman’s record 264 in 1994.
“It was tough,” Simpson said. “You’d think leading by seven is great, but it’s hard to stay motivated to keep doing what you’ve been doing.”
Tiger Woods, in the eighth start of his comeback following a fourth back surgery, started Sunday 11 shots behind but produced another blistering start, energizing a massive final-round gallery. Woods was six under through 12 holes and got within four of the lead before falling hard, playing his last five holes in three over. He shot 69, tying for 11th, his fourth top-12 finish in his comeback.
“I didn’t miss a shot today,” Woods said, “and so I’m not that disappointed with it.”
For Simpson, this moment was especially sweet. Having not won on the PGA Tour since 2013 in Las Vegas, he’d gone through extreme depths trying to figure out his putting when, in 2016, the U.S. Golf Association eliminated the anchored stroke he’d used since his freshman year of college. Simpson, the 2012 U.S. Open champion and once a top-10 player in the world and Ryder Cup performer, now has the momentum and inner belief to return to that echelon.
He’s now ranked 20th.
It was at T.P.C. Sawgrass on the eve of the tournament a year ago that Simpson had a chance meeting with Tim Clark, the injured PGA Tour pro who had won the 2010 Players. Simpson had just missed another cut and ranked outside 190th on Tour in strokes gained: putting. “Have you tried the Claw?” the South African Clark asked, referring to the method in which the thumb of the right hand (for a right-handed player) is placed under the grip, and the index finger is the only right-hand finger on the club. Already Simpson runs the shaft of the putter up his left forearm.
Simpson led the field in putting at the Players, and he now ranks inside the top 10 on the PGA Tour. “For us,” said his caddie, Paul Tesori, “it’s nothing short of miraculous.”
With a closing 66 and a tie for 11th, Justin Thomas surpassed Dustin Johnson (who tied for 17th) for the No. 1 spot in the Official World Golf Ranking. It is the first time that Thomas, the 2017 PGA Championship winner, has been on top. At 25, Thomas becomes the fourth youngest No. 1 behind Tiger Woods, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy.
“It’s important, but like I said, it’s not something where it’s like I just want to do it once,” Thomas said. “I want to do it for a really, really long time.”