Belly-putter ban lifts game for Players winner Webb Simpson

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Webb Simpson credited everyone around him for winning The Players Championship, his fifth career victory and in some respects his most important. And he didn’t stop with those he considers to be part of his team.

Thank-you notes also are in order for the USGA and the R&A.

Golf’s governing bodies outlawed the anchored stroke that Simpson had used with his belly putter since he was a teenager. Simpson won the 2012 U.S. Open at Olympic Club, one of three major champions in an 11-month span to use a belly putter.

Simpson struggled mightily when forced to learn an entirely different way to putt.

That’s no longer the case.

He led the field in putting during his four-shot victory at The Players Championship, and that wasn’t just one great week. Simpson was 10th on the PGA Tour going into the TPC Sawgrass. Now he is at No. 5 in the key putting statistic.

“It’s funny how those things happen,” Simpson said. “This is probably the first time I can say I’m glad they banned it because I wouldn’t have ever probably swayed away from the belly putter.”

He was always determined to play by the rules. He just wasn’t successful at the onset.

The ban took effect in 2016. Simpson decided to switch a year earlier, though he started to waver. On his way to Japan for the Dunlop Phoenix in late 2014, he told caddie Paul Tesori he was bringing the belly putter with him for just one more tournament.

Instead, he took a drastic measure.

“I see my bag in the garage, and I see the belly putter, and for whatever reason I had an urge to just break it,” Simpson said. “If I break it, I can’t take it with me. And so I go over there and snap it over my knee.”

Instead of pitching it in the trash, his wife persuaded him to keep it. Both pieces are in his trophy case.

But it wasn’t smooth sailing.

Simpson had an average ranking of 36th in putting his first six years on tour with the belly putter. Once he went conventional, he fell to No. 174. He put the broken pieces in the case, but he didn’t add any trophies with the regular putter.

The low point was 2016 at the start of the FedEx Cup playoffs, when he started to get short with his caddie, and they sat in the car in the parking lot at Bethpage Black talking about how to move forward.

The low point became a turning point. Simpson, stubborn about being a conventional putter, became more open-minded about other ideas. He called other players to see what they tried, and what worked.

“I think I was too closed-minded and just tried to learn a lot about putting and what’s important,” Simpson said. “Talking to great putters helped. Aaron Baddeley and Brandt Snedeker, had tons of conversations with those guys.”

It led him to use a longer putter that runs up the left side of his arm, which Matt Kuchar made popular. And then he found what Simpson calls the “missing link,” provided by former Players champion Tim Clark. They were at Sawgrass a year ago when Clark suggested that Simpson use a claw grip with that style of putter.

Simpson finished last season at No. 88 in the key putting statistic (strokes gained), and he didn’t miss a cut the rest of the year after Clark’s tip.

And now here he is, ranking among the best putters and feeling like one of them.

He can make room in that trophy case for the crystal from The Players Championship, his first victory since the governing bodies made him change the only putting style he ever knew in college and as a pro.

“To be honest with you guys, I’ve never putted this well in my life,” Simpson said. “And I think if I had stayed with the belly putter, I think I maybe average 35th to 60th every year in putting. So very average.”

The weakness became a strength.

Simpson was in the top 10 in the world when the anchoring ban was proposed. He was just inside the top 40 when he abandoned his belly putter for good. He nearly fell out of the top 100 two years ago. Sunday’s victory moved him back to No. 20. He is No. 9 in the Ryder Cup standings, with three majors and a World Golf Championship still to play. His outlook, always positive, is stronger than ever.

“It means everything to me,” Simpson said. “I feel like it’s my first win. To win a major championship and few other tour events and then go over four years without a win … I never doubted myself. But at the same time, that’s a long time. “

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