PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Sam Simpson, a North Carolinian who died in November at 74, taught his son Webb, the fifth of his six children, many things about golf and life.
His words still ring frequently inside his son’s head. One critical lesson: Always finish strong, no matter how you’re doing.
Webb Simpson had one problem with that advice late in his second round at the Players Championship on Friday. He was 11 under par after 16 holes, on a pace to shatter the tournament’s 18-hole scoring record, a feat that had left the two other players and three caddies in his group laughing aloud in disbelief.
What would it mean to finish strong after that?
A double-bogey 5 on No. 17 brought Simpson’s momentum to a jarring end and put him to the kind of test his father had in mind. Simpson righted himself, went back to work and finished his day with a solid two-putt par that allowed him to finish at nine-under 63 and match the tournament’s 18-hole scoring mark. He will take a five-shot advantage into the weekend.
Simpson, 32, became the seventh player at T.P.C. Sawgrass to shoot a 63, a score first recorded by Fred Couples in 1992 and last posted by Colt Knost in 2016.
Simpson’s 36-hole score of 15-under 129 also tied a tournament record, which was set by Jason Day two years ago.
The South African Charl Schwartzel (66), the New Zealander Danny Lee (66) and the American Patrick Cantlay (68), all sitting at 10-under 134, must feel as if they’re competing at some other tournament.
“I didn’t know the record,” Simpson said. “I figured I was probably close. But to be honest, I cared more about having a good routine and hitting a good shot in this golf tournament than the record. The records are just bonuses to good play. It wasn’t really in my thoughts as much as probably everybody else’s.”
Simpson, the 2012 United States Open champion, had nine birdies and an eagle in the round.
His 28-foot putt from off the back of the par-4 15th ran through the Bermuda fringe, bounded onto the green, crashed into the flagstick and vanished for the fifth of six consecutive birdies.
At that point, the English player Tyrrell Hatton turned to Paul Tesori, Simpson’s caddie, and asked if he remembered Ty Webb, Chevy Chase’s character from the movie “Caddyshack,” who could knock in putts from anywhere, even blindfolded. Then Hatton asked to touch Simpson’s putter.
Yes, his round was that astonishing.
“Check out my goose bumps,” said Tesori, a former professional who attended nearby St. Augustine High School and has played T.P.C. Sawgrass more than 700 times. “It was one of the most unbelievable experiences out there.”
Simpson won his United States Open title anchoring a belly putter into his midsection. On Jan. 1, 2016, anchoring a putter was banned.
Simpson was one of a handful of players who paid the heaviest price. He suffered through two-plus seasons of poor putting and slid from the world’s top 10 to outside the top 80.
Simpson last won a tournament in 2014. He switched to a conventional putter ahead of 2016 and ranked 177th in strokes gained through putting.
A year ago at this tournament, Simpson ran into the 2010 Players champion, Tim Clark, who has the same manager. Clark asked Simpson how he was putting. “Consistent,” Simpson answered. Which wasn’t very good.
Clark introduced him to the right-hand “claw” putting grip that had helped him succeed. Simpson already extended the grip end of the putter up his left arm, as Matt Kuchar does. Simpson developed a hybrid grip from the methods. Tesori calls it the Clark-Kuchar.
Apparently, it works. Simpson ranks 10th this season in strokes gained with the putter.
On Friday, he needed only 23 putts, and in two days he has been 9.08 strokes better than the entire field with the putter. “Everything is going in,” Simpson said. “You feel like no matter what, you’re going to make it.”
“But at the same time,” he added, “you’re at T.P.C. Sawgrass, so you know that trouble is everywhere.”
Trouble does lurk everywhere, even on the course’s shortest hole.
But Simpson and Tesori figured they needed 137 yards on the hole, the island 17th, and with the wind swirling, Simpson was between clubs.
He wanted to “smash” a sand wedge. Tesori’s gut told him pitching wedge, but he said, “I wasn’t the one with the adrenaline of being 11 under.”
Simpson blocked the shot, and it bounded off a right-side wooden railroad tie, then kicked long across the green into water.
“That’s the piece of it that said, ‘Man, you had it,’ ” Tesori said. Simpson finished strong, as his dad told him to, and neither man stayed disappointed for long.