Webb Simpson relives thrill of winning last year's U.S. Open

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ARDMORE, Pa. — Webb Simpson felt the true weight this week of winning a U.S. Open championship.

Webb Simpson: The North Carolinian won last year in only his fifth major start.  Charlie Riedel
Charlie Riedel
Webb Simpson: The North Carolinian won last year in only his fifth major start.

He’s been stopped by strangers, been interviewed with his trophy by his side, and quizzed about the bird man who interrupted his celebration.

But it was registering for this year’s Open at Merion Golf Club when the feat really hit him.

“It brought back so many good memories of winning the tournament last year,” he said Tuesday.

Simpson emerged from a fog-filled final round at Olympic Club in San Fran­cisco with 1-over-par 281 to win in only his fifth time at a major.

He hasn’t won a tournament since, but it hasn’t softened the impact the championship had on his career.

“There hasn’t been a day that went by that I haven’t thought about winning the U.S. Open, being the U.S. Open champion, being announced on the first tee as U.S. Open champion,” he said. “That hasn’t gotten old. I don’t want that to change. So it’s been a great year. It’s been a fast year.”

He recalled being crushed at the start of the week because he missed his son’s first steps. By the time Simpson won the trophy, it turned out to be one of the best weeks of his life. His championship speech on the course was interrupted by a man who stepped in front of TV cameras and made bird noises.

“Usually that’s the first question, tell me about bird man,” Simpson said. “People thought that it took away from the ceremony. I thought it added to it. Everybody wants to talk about it. I got an official ‘Bird Man’ hat now. I don’t think we’ll be seeing him this week.”

EARLY ARRIVAL: Phil Mickelson always knew he would be home in San Diego the day before the U.S. Open at Merion. Wet weather put him home a little early.

His daughter, Amanda, is graduating from the eighth grade today and is a featured speaker. Mickelson left early because of rain at Merion, giving him a few days of practice in pristine weather.

He will fly back after the ceremony, in time for him to tee off at 7:11 a.m. Thursday.

Amanda is his oldest daughter. She was born the day after the 1999 U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2, where Mickelson carried a beeper and pledged to withdraw if his wife had gone into labor. That was the first of his record five runner-up finishes in the U.S. Open.

MUD BALLS: Merion is wet. The course is soft. And the balls are caked in mud.

That’s a problem.

Players don’t think it’s fair that a round can potentially become affected by the ball landing in the slop. The PGA Tour will use a lift-clean-and-place rule in certain tournaments. The USGA, however, is unlikely to bend for the U.S. Open at Merion.

“I hope they make the right call,” Graeme McDowell said. “If it’s picking up mud, then I think we need to lift, clean and place just for a level playing field. I’m not a guy that controls the mud ball very well. I’m a low spinner. Every time I get mud on the ball, my deviation gets quite heavy. I’m hoping they make the right call.”

The U.S. Open could come down to fewest mud balls as much as birdies and bogies.

“I think mud balls are a problem. I think they’re unfair,” McDowell said. “I think golf is designed to be played from a closely mown fairway. If you hit it in that fairway you deserve a great line and a great opportunity to attack the green surface. That’s the reward you get for hitting the fairway.”

WICKER SHOCK: Resting atop the flag sticks, wicker baskets are the official symbol of Merion.

They’re officially the biggest headache for caddies.

Sure, fans and Merion Golf Club traditionalists love the baskets. The flag sticks don’t have flags, and the origin of the color-topped pins remains a mystery.

So also is the maker of the baskets. The club guards the secret so tightly that few know who crafts them.

“We’ll never play anything like this,” defending U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson said. “It’s a once-in-a lifetime opportunity. It’s just part of the tradition of Merion, part of the tradition of the club. When I was here in September they told me they were going to keep the wicker baskets and I was pretty excited about it.”

While the baskets color up the course, they also stay as stationary as the sticks. Which way is the wind blowing? Might to have to try the ol’ tested way of licking a finger to measure wind strength and direction. Wicker doesn’t budge.

“It makes their job harder,” Simpson said. “They might be a little on edge to keep their job this week. We like it because it’s different. I honestly think it will make us make decisions quicker. We’re sitting there a lot of times and we see one flag over here blowing that way and a flag over here blowing that way, we get confused and second guess.”

It could still be tricky for Open contenders.

“You just have to commit and trust yourself, trust your caddie and trust you’ve got the wind right,” former U.S. Open champ Rory McIlroy said.

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