SAN FRANCISCO — An Arnold Palmer scholar did what Arnold Palmer couldn’t do – win the U.S. Open at The Olympic Club.
Webb Simpson – who attended Wake Forest on a Palmer Scholarship – rallied from six shots down in the final round with 68 to beat Graeme McDowell and Michael Thompson by one stroke on a vicious Olympic course that once again repelled higher-profile contenders.
“Amazed. I’ve got no words,” Simpson said.
Simpson – who lost the PGA Tour money title to No. 1 Luke Donald in the final week of the season – looked a little shocked sitting in the clubhouse when McDowell’s 25-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole slid harmlessly past the cup. He got a kiss from his wife, Dowd – who watched videos they’d taken of their 16-month-old son, James, with him during the clubhouse wait on Father’s Day – before receiving a career-defining trophy from the USGA.
Billy Casper – the man who ended up beating Palmer in a playoff at Olympic in 1966 after Arnie coughed up a seven-stroke lead on the closing nine holes of regulation – was on the 18th green with 1955 Olympic upset winner Jack Fleck during the trophy presentation, interrupted by a rowdy fan who was yanked off the green by USGA executive director Mike Davis.
“Arnold has been so good to me, playing under his scholarship at Wake,” said Simpson. “To win here with what happened to him, I hope he can smile.”
On a course that has proven impossible to defend leads on, Simpson made a mid-round charge that proved to be just enough. He had slipped to 5-over par and six shots off the lead with two early bogeys before running off a streak of four birdies in a five-hole stretch from Nos. 6 to 10 to climb to 1-over par.
He held on with eight closing pars, including a tough up-and-down from a rough-shrouded hole next to the 18th green, to post the clubhouse lead. It was his first outright lead of the tournament, coinciding with Jim Furyk’s bogey at the 16th.
“It was nerve-racking,” Simpson said of his wait in the clubhouse while McDowell and Furyk played the last two holes. “I know what kind of players they are. Both have won majors. I expected both of them to do well coming in. I thought even though Graeme had a 25-footer, it was probably going to hit the hole or have a good chance. I couldn’t be happier right now.”
Some Olympic traditions held strong. For the fifth time, the 54-hole leader failed to hang on to win as former U.S. Open winners Furyk and McDowell both faltered. Furyk shot birdie-free 74 but held at least a share of the lead through 15 holes. McDowell made six bogeys on Sunday before nearly recovering to force an 18-hole playoff.
“You name a U.S. Open on any golf course that isn’t hard to hold the lead,” said Furyk.
Once again, the most decorated major-accredited contender didn’t hoist the trophy at Olympic, with Simpson beating a cast of major winners who had a chance down the stretch on Sunday including Furyk, McDowell, Padraig Harrington and Ernie Els.
“Very. Very,” Furyk said on his disappointment level after a third near-miss joining his runner-up finishes in 2006 and ’07. “I don’t know how to put that one into words, but I had my opportunities and my chances and it was right there. It was, on that back nine, it was my tournament to win.”
Simpson joins Scott Simpson – who beat Tom Watson in 1987 – among the surprise Olympic winners. He won on Father’s Day with his pregnant wife by his side and their toddler son at home.
“Our little boy is 16 months old, and it’s been our first week away from him,” Simpson said. “It’s bittersweet. We couldn’t have a better week. I needed (Dowd) with me, because I never felt nerves like I did today. A lot of times I had to hit my legs, because I couldn’t really feel them.”
There were plenty of guys who felt the same way as contenders rose and fell all Sunday.
Lee Westwood made an early move and lost it when his ball went into a tree on the fifth hole and never came down.
Els jumped up to second place with an eagle on the short par-4 7th hole, only to give it right back with bogeys on the next two holes. His bid, as well as his automatic invitation back to the Masters Tournament with a top-eight finish, ended with two more bogeys on the last three holes.
Harrington, who made things hard for himself with two four putts in the first round, charged with five birdies from 7 through 17 only to bogey the 18th with a chance to get to 1-over.
Michael Thompson shot the low round of the day for the second time in the week – 67 on Sunday to go with his opening 66 – to post the early clubhouse lead at 2-over, which almost held up.
But it was Simpson who posted the lowest weekend total with a pair of 68s to etch his name into Olympic and major-championship lore.
“I believed in myself, and I thought I could win a major,” said Simpson.