The surprising strength of Webb Simpson

July 1, 2020
Justin Ray

Perhaps no player has changed his career narrative more in the last five years than Webb Simpson.

A U.S. Open champion at age 26, Simpson’s flourishing career suffered when the anchored putting stroke was banned on New Year’s Day 2016. Simpson ranked 177th on the PGA Tour in strokes gained putting that season and nearly fell out of the top 100 in the World Ranking at one point.

Once a weakness, putting is now an overwhelming strength in his game.

Since the beginning of last season, Webb has gained an average of 0.57 strokes per round putting in PGA Tour competition. Among players with at least 40 rounds in that span, only two have been better in that stretch.

In four seasons, he’s jumped more than 100 spots in three-putt avoidance, and more than 120 spots in putting inside ten feet. He’s second on the PGA Tour this season in putting average and leads in birdie conversion rate.

His exemplary putting coupled with sharp iron play (ranked 4th this season on Tour in strokes gained approach) has given Webb the ability to post elite scores despite not sharing the distance advantages most of the world’s top players enjoy.

Consider this: Simpson leads the PGA Tour in scoring average in 2019-20. Of the top-20 players currently in that statistic, only four are ranked outside the top-100 in driving distance. Simpson is ranked 104th.

Simpson is ranked 114th this season in strokes gained off the tee. The players with the second-and-third-best scoring averages this season – Rory McIlroy and Bryson DeChambeau – are ranked 4th and 2nd in that statistic, respectively.

After backing out of the Travelers Championship last week, Webb headlines this field at the Rocket Mortgage Classic.

COURSE CHARACTERISTICS

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For the second week in a row, the most frequently seen approach shot distance will be from 125 to 150 yards out. In 2019, the field hit more than 1,300 approaches from that range at Detroit Golf Club, the second-highest number of any course on Tour all season. TPC River Highlands, last week’s venue, ranked third in that statistic last year.

The par 3s and par 4s at Detroit Golf Club are a bit shorter than the PGA Tour average, while the par 5s are longer than normal, averaging about 580 yards on the scorecard.

Nonetheless, scores should be low for the third consecutive week on the PGA Tour. In last year’s inaugural edition of this event, 25-under was the winning score, while 16 players finished -15 or better. Only seven courses were easier on the PGA Tour last season than Detroit Golf Club, with the field averaging nearly two full strokes under par per round.

Only five courses on the Tour last season had easier par fours than Detroit Golf Club. Get low, everyone.

NOTES ON PLAYERS IN THE FIELD

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– There was no tournament on the PGA Tour last season – anecdotally or statistically – with a more surprising winner than the Rocket Mortgage Classic. Alternate Nate Lashley not only won – he led outright after all four rounds and finished six shots ahead of runner-up Doc Redman.

How rare was this incredible performance?

Only 4.8 percent of PGA Tour winners since 2010 have won in wire-to-wire fashion. Lashley did it.

Only 4.5 percent of tournaments in that span have been won by six strokes or more. Lashley did that, too.

And only two other times in the last 15 seasons has an alternate won any PGA Tour title. Check, check, check.

Lashley is one of just five players in the last decade to lead wire-to-wire in a PGA Tour win of six strokes or more. The other four to do it – Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, Martin Kaymer and Justin Thomas – are each major champions who were ranked number one in the world at some point.

As for making your first PGA Tour victory a wire-to-wire win, that’s also an incredibly rare occurrence. Only three other times in the last 25 years has that happened: Tim Herron at the 1996 Honda Classic, Camilo Villegas at the 2008 BMW Championship, and Brice Garnett at Corales Puntacana in 2018.

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Bryson DeChambeau hasn’t broken through with a win since acquiring his newfound distance advantage, but he is undeniably getting closer. Bryson is a combined 46-under the last three weeks, the best score to par of any player in that span. He also leads all players since the season re-booted in strokes gained off the tee, greens in regulation (78.7%) and drives over 300 yards (90).

DeChambeau is averaging less than 150 yards left to the hole after his tee shots this season (149.8 to be exact), a jump of 17.6 yards from a season ago. That is currently on pace to be the lowest such number recorded in a PGA Tour season – something that has been tracked since 2005. Bryson is the betting favorite entering the week in Detroit.

Rickie Fowler is down to 31st in the World Ranking this week, his lowest position in more than six years. The last time Fowler entered an event outside the top-30 was the 2014 U.S. Open, when he finished runner-up to Kaymer.

– He’s only made three starts worldwide so far in 2020, but the limited results have been impressive for Tyrrell Hatton. Now knocking on the world top-10’s door (he’s 15th this week, one spot behind Tiger Woods), Hatton leads the PGA Tour this season in strokes gained total per round. He’s 2nd in birdie average, too.

The most impressive thing about Hatton’s last two starts, though, is that he contended in two totally different climates, with different aspects of his game clicking. In his win at the brutally tough Arnold Palmer Invitational, Hatton was 5th in the field in strokes gained tee-to-green, 9th in greens in regulation and 10th in approach shot proximity. He won with a score of 4-under.

At Harbour Town, where 20-under got him a tie for third, Hatton was 36th in the field in strokes gained tee to green. But a scorching hot putter – he led the tournament in strokes gained and total putting – kept him in contention until the very end.

TIGER WOODS STAT OF THE WEEK

Dustin Johnson won his 21st career PGA Tour title last week at the Travelers Championship. He has the most PGA Tour wins of any player currently under age 40. Tiger Woods once had a stretch from 1999-2001 in which he won 21 times in 42 PGA Tour starts.