9:37 PM EDT, June 20, 2012
CROMWELL — He passed on Letterman. He passed on Leno. He didn't pass on the Travelers Championship.
Late on Tuesday afternoon, Webb Simpson appeared unobtrusively on the practice tee at TPC River Highands. But believe this much: Nobody stands bigger than the national champion who doesn't big-time the next link in the chain of his sport. Nobody is more worthy of our approval than the guy who doesn't dive headfirst into the trappings of sudden fame, who keeps his head, who keeps his commitments.
They didn't have to fish James Frederick Webb Simpson out of Fisherman's Wharf after he won 2012U.S. Open. He didn't change his name to J. Freddie or Spider Webb. He didn't show up in an uncompromising position on TMZ. He is on the hook for no pleasure guiltier than the Wendy's menu before he and his wife, Dowd, took the red-eye back to Charlotte.
"When Webb won, I sent his agent Thomas Parker a congratulatory note right away," Travelers tournament director Nathan Grube said Wednesday. "I had a question. 'Are we OK next week?' He said, 'Absolutely.' "
And that was it. No begging. No cajoling. Absolutely.
Simpson thanked the national shows for their interest, but absolutely he had to keep a commitment he made to an event Tuesday for GE Healthcare in Connecticut. Absolutely, Simpson showed up a continent away in Cromwell less than 48 hours after winning his first major. Absolutely, Simpson played in the celebrity pro-am Wednesday. Absolutely, he'll be teeing off at 12:55 p.m. Thursday with Bubba Watson and Keegan Bradley, the first time in the event's six-decade history that the three most recent major winners have played together.
Believe this, too. While appearances on the national morning or late-evening TV circuit may provide instant gratification, it doesn't compare to the long-lasting gratification a tournament like this one has for guys like Ian Baker-Finchshowing up after winning the British in 1991 and Lucas Glover for making the drive up from Bethpage after winning the U.S. Open in 2009.
Webb Simpson made the 2012 Travelers Championship, and he hasn't even taken a swing in anger yet.
"In 2008, Travelers gave me a spot [on a sponsor exemption]," Simpson said. "I love the people here. I love coming to this town. When you've got guys like Andy Bessette and Mr. [Jay] Fishman behind this event, it's kind of hard to call up from Olympic and tell them I'm not coming.
"My wife and I never talked about me not coming. I'm probably always going to come to Travelers. It's also a great week for me to kind of unwind from the U.S. Open, get away from reflecting, put my focus elsewhere, like winning this tournament. I think it's actually going to be good for me to get back inside the ropes."
Ben Curtis was ranked 396th in the world when he won the 2003 British Open. Before he won, he would have backstroked the Atlantic for a chance to play in Cromwell. After he won, he devoured the spotlight, went on "The Today Show," went on Letterman, turned his back on the 2003 Greater Hartford Open. I criticized the small-town boy, who claimed he wouldn't change, for breaking a commitment. Pointed out this small-town event had 50 years of history and averaged the second-biggest crowds on the PGA Tour.
Some in the golf media criticized me. It didn't change my view. Except for Tiger Woods and precious few others, individual entrepreneurs are only as strong as the weekly string of events they support and that support them.
Simpson understands this. Twice, he went out of his way to mention much of his commitment to Travelers is because of the commitment Travelers made to Hartford and the PGA Tour. "It's tremendous," he said. "We have a responsibility to respond to that and in a way thank the guys who stay behind the PGA Tour. I also love the event. I love Hartford."
He loves his wife more than anything. Dowd, due with their second child in early August, and Webb brought the U.S. Open trophy home with them Sunday night, packed it with their bags. He immediately gave the trophy to his father-in-law to take to the office. If this sounds like a family man, consider this. He says he won't be going for two majors in a row. He's not going to Royal Lytham for the British Open in mid-July.
"I have the rest of my life to play in the British Open," Simpson said. "I don't want to miss the birth of our second child.
"It's certainly a little harder not to go because I'd love to go try to win another major, but in the grand scheme of life, it's a decision I'll know I'll always be happy I made. The excitement of watching my first son being born was one of the one of the great experiences a person can have. I don't want to miss it."
Except for Bay Hill, home to Arnold Palmer's tournament, Simpson has played Cromwell more times (this is fifth) than any other tour stop. He turned pro after playing for Wake Forest in the 2008 NCAA championship, remembers writing a letter to Travelers officials asking to play, remembers finishing in a tie for 37th in his second pro event. Nobody was watching. He enters the 2012 Travelers with everybody in golf watching.
First-time winners sometimes see their games all off. Distractions? Commitments? Pressure? Or maybe all of them.
"[A drop-off] is a concern, but a good concern," Simpson said. "I feel fortunate that I experienced a little bit of that last year when I won for the first time. I'm a people-pleaser, so I'm going to have to get used to saying no. It's tough for my personality. I've just got to accept there will be more attention on me the next few majors.
"As far as my game falling off, I'm going to continue to work on what I think will make me better."
There are a lot of people who do a lot of stupid things in this world. Webb Simpson doesn't figure to be one of them.
After Simpson won the Open, Tom Watson sent him a terrific email. Greg Norman left him a phone message. Hale Irwin, whom Simpson hadn't even met before, reached out to Simpson. Simpson received an Arnold Palmer Scholarship to attend Wake Forest. Arnie not only sent him a note, he surprised Simpson by calling in while Simpson was on the Golf Channel "Morning Drive" program.
"Guys that are legends of the game that have told me some things that I would have paid for," Simpson said. "Invaluable advice. It has been great.
"I've got a couple emails that I'm probably going to print out and frame."
So Bubba, Bradley and Simpson tee off Thursday in as exciting a first-round threesome as this event has seen. Watson and Simpson, partners in faith, asked team captain Fred Couples last year if they also could be partners on the 2011 Presidents Cup. Simpson and Bradley know each other, too. It's all good — except for the bananas.
"I think it was Keegan's caddie Pepsi [Steve Hale] who put bananas in my shoes Sunday," Simpson said. "A brand new pair of shoes. I washed them and the smell is still in there. I don't know what I'm going to do, but I'm going to get him back with something."
That's the good news.
Even after winning the national championship, Webb Simpson doesn't act like his feet don't stink.
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