SAN FRANCISCO — When Webb Simpson is asked, years from now, for the shot that defined the 112th U.S. Open, he may well pick the dainty-as-a-doily chip he faced at the side of the 18th green in Sunday’s final round. He had been the leader of the Open for all of five minutes, and the players with more holes to endure had more messes to make. He picked the ball carefully out of the gnarly grass, watched it tumble gingerly across the green, where it settled three feet past the hole. He made the par putt, and headed to the clubhouse — a memory either way.
But to anyone else — to Jim Furyk or Graeme McDowell, to Padraig Harrington or Ernie Els — the shot that defined this version of the Open was something else completely. Simpson has the trophy, because that chip shot helped close out a 68 that left him at 1-over-par 281 for this brutal tournament. He is 26, a North Carolinian by birth and residence, a father of one with another on the way. And he celebrated his first major championship in the comfort of Olympic’s clubhouse, kissing his wife Dowd while his most likely assailants created their own memories, albeit dark ones.
“I never felt nerves like I did today,” said Simpson, a two-time winner on the PGA Tour who came in ranked 14th in the world. “A lot of times, I had to hit my legs because I couldn’t really feel them.”
That would give a sense of what those playing behind him experienced, and perhaps emphasizes the advantage he had by teeing off a half an hour before the overnight leaders, McDowell and Furyk. To be sure, his round was one to be admired — three straight birdies at 6, 7 and 8 to claw into the picture, a birdie at 10 to climb within one of Furyk’s lead, and eight straight pars to close, exactly what the U.S. Open calls for.
But listen to Furyk and McDowell, each seeking his second Open championship, and it’s easy to see that Olympic, in hosting its fifth Open, doled out more gut punches than slaps on the back.
“I don’t know how to put that one into words,” Furyk said. “But I had my opportunities and my chances and it was right there.”
“There’s a mixture of emotions inside me right now,” McDowell said. “Obviously disappointment, deflation, pride. But mostly just frustration.”
The reasons for all that, Simpson could watch from the clubhouse. The viewing he did there — when he and Dowd weren’t watching videos, on their phones, of their 16-month-old son James, just to calm themselves — was worthy of frittering away fingernails. Both Furyk and McDowell reached the tee at the last facing the following scenario: make birdie at what played as a 335-yard par 4, and play Simpson on Monday in an 18-hole playoff.
“I was so nervous all day, but especially at the end,” Simpson said. “Even after I was done, I was nervous.”
He had a right to be, because as shaky as Furyk and McDowell were over their final six holes, they each are the kind of gnash-the-teeth-together competitors who could offer up a defining shot at the defining moment.
At 18, McDowell knocked his approach past the flag, and he jogged up the hill, so anxious he was to see how much he had left for birdie — about 25 feet down a hill.
Furyk, playing second, dumped his approach into a greenside bunker. He hadn’t made a birdie all day, and he wouldn’t at the last, so he crouched in the fairway, a chance at his second major championship frittered away.
“I needed to hit a good shot at that moment,” Furyk said, “and I did not.”
He ended up making bogey, not birdie, and on a day when an even-par round would have won him the title by two, he shot a 4-over 74 to finish tied for fourth.
McDowell’s putt rolled slowly down the hill, but never truly had a chance. It settled left of the cup, and the Northern Irishman — so embraced here, just up the coast from where he won the 2010 Open at Pebble Beach — shrugged his shoulders.
“That putt, it was weird, because I hit that putt in practice and it bumped left and it moved right of the hole,” McDowell said. “It just didn’t do that today.”
He closed with 73, unable to overcome an uneven day in which he made six bogeys. He ended up in a tie with Michael Thompson — an obscure pro who qualified at Rockville’s Woodmont Country Club and shot 67 Sunday to set a target of 2 over — for second. Both Furyk and McDowell had other moments they will think back on, adding to their frustration. McDowell made back-to-back birdies at 11 and 12, then back-to-back bogeys at 13 and 14. He hit just three fairways all day. Furyk will have the drive at the par-5 16th — a shot where the tee box was moved a full 100 yards forward from the 670-yard back tees, creating a completely different look than the players had faced.
“It’s awkward,” he said. He looked it, snapping a nasty, hard hook that led to bogey, the bogey that thrust Simpson, for the first time all week, into the lead as he played 18. Others had walked away from that same spot feeling cursed — Harrington because he needed birdie at the last to get to 1 over, and instead chunked a sloppy shot into a bunker and made bogey, and Els because he bogeyed two of the final three, when one birdie and two pars would have forced a playoff.
“I’m not sure you can have your ‘A’ game on this course, to be honest,” McDowell said. “It just beats you up.”
The least beat-up ended up to be Simpson, dressed neatly in a cardigan, drinking a bottle of water. He was the one, the only one, who left Olympic smiling, all his memories worth framing.