The little grin said it all.
On Sunday evening, atop a sand hill not far from the Pacific, Webb Simpson was facing the most important putt of his life on the fiendish final green at Olympic Club. He had just played one of the better chips in the recent history of the U.S. Open, what playing partner Nicolas Colsaerts called "an impossible shot. With that lie he had, he was dead. That was a kind of miracle." Now Simpson faced a three-foot par putt with the national championship hanging in the balance.
No Open venue is haunted by more ghosts than Olympic, where Hogan and Palmer and Watson all met their demise. The amphitheater around the final green was swollen with maybe 10,000 people who had come to witness history, but as Simpson looked over his putt, he instinctively tilted his head toward the clubhouse and locked eyes with his wife, Dowd, who only seconds earlier had materialized on the steps of a footbridge far up the hill.
Thirty-four weeks pregnant, over four days she had hoofed all 72 holes with her hubby. Simpson flashed his college sweetheart a jaunty smile that was so at odds with the circumstances that Dowd covered her mouth with her hands in surprise. Then Simpson strolled up to his ball and brushed in the putt. "I don't know how, but he is always aware of me," Dowd said. "In the old days, when he wasn't playing in front of big crowds, he would say he could tell how close he hit his shot by how loud I was clapping. Now, with me being pregnant, I think it helps him keep everything in perspective."
The Simpsons walked hand in hand to the clubhouse to await their fate. Back on the 16th hole one of golf's most celebrated brawlers, 2003 U.S. Open champion Jim Furyk, had made a brutal bogey on the par-5, giving Simpson a one-stroke lead, which he didn't learn about until he was seated in the NBC tower. Playing with Furyk in the final group, 2010 U.S. Open champ Graeme McDowell birdied the 17th hole to pull into a tie for second, a shot back. After pressing flesh with Bob Costas, Simpson and his bride settled in front of a TV in a quiet corner of the locker room to watch Furyk and McDowell play the 72nd hole.
Dowd pulled out her iPhone. "We needed something to help us relax," she said. Up to this point their entire stay in San Francisco had been leisurely, what Webb called a "babymoon"—a last chance to chill before another little one arrives. Few players treat the U.S. Open like a working vacation, but this was the first time the Simpsons had gone away without James, their 16-month-old son, who was back home in Charlotte with his grandparents. After Webb's first-round 72, he and Dowd drove down Lombard Street, strolled on the Golden Gate Bridge and took in a movie. Throughout the week they enjoyed long, leisurely meals and the chance to sleep in. All of this helped mellow out Simpson, who came into Olympic having missed the cut in his last two starts. (He was pressing to back up last season's breakthrough, when he began the year ranked 208th in the world but went on to win twice and finish second on the money list and 10th in the World Ranking.) Simpson had begun Father's Day by Skyping with James, and it left him a little heavy-hearted. So now, as Dowd huddled with her husband in Olympic's clubhouse, she cued up a video of the little guy taking his first steps, which left her brushing away a tear. On the TV in front of them, Furyk yanked a short iron into a fried-egg lie in a greenside bunker, the last in a series of mistakes in yet another blown major championship. McDowell knocked his approach 25 feet above the hole, but Webb seemed to barely notice, as Dowd was now playing a video of James giggling at his dad's funny faces. Webb doubled over with laughter.
Dowd finally put away the phone as McDowell stepped to what every kid dreams about until he grows up and has to face it: a do-or-die putt on the final hole of the Open. He misread it badly, and just like that Simpson, a 26-year-old Southern gentleman, had won the U.S. Open on only his second try. "I couldn't feel my legs most of the back nine," Simpson said, but he closed out the tournament with eight straight pressure-proof pars. This followed a mid-round burst during which he birdied four of five holes sandwiched around a spectacular up and down from a greenside bunker on the 9th. His two-under-par 68 left him at one over, a dream winning score by USGA standards.
Simpson's energetic play down the stretch owed something to a newfound dedication to fitness that began last year. In 2011 he also linked up with a new caddie, Paul Tesori, the former Tour player who looped for Vijay Singh during much of his Hall of Fame run. Tesori has what he calls a "no b.s. policy," which is to say he's not shy about giving Simpson pointed advice. During his man's second straight missed cut, Tesori detected a flaw in Simpson's backswing, and in the run-up to the Open they spent hours correcting it.
Simpson's work ethic and openness to new ideas has fueled his late-blooming success. He played at Wake Forest on an Arnold Palmer scholarship but didn't win until his senior year, when he became the rare college player (back then) to use a belly putter. He reached the PGA Tour in 2009 but had to fight to keep his job that season and the next as he patiently addressed the weaknesses in his game.
Simpson is a regular at the Tour's Bible study and has TITUS 3:3--7 stitched on his cap; he and Dowd both said they calmed themselves through prayer on an exceedingly stressful Sabbath. "It was kind of a crazy atmosphere out there, but he played with a lot of peace," said Colsaerts. "You can see that he believes in himself."