A Champion’s Raleigh Roots – Webb Simpson

Hard work, talent and focus have led Broughton High School graduate Webb Simpson on his path as a champion golfer.
by Liza Roberts | photographs by Juli Leonard

The balloons are the only hint. Tied to a mailbox and drooping toward the curb, they’re the only thing that sets Webb Simpson’s white brick house apart from its neighbors in this comfortable Charlotte neighborhood, the only indication that something might have been celebrated here.

Inside, on this summer Saturday afternoon, Simpson is in a T-shirt, playing on the floor upstairs with his toddler son, James, and chatting with his wife, Dowd, and his parents, who are visiting from Raleigh for the weekend. They talk of the baby on the way, a new big boy bed for James, the Diet Coke that needs to come out of the freezer.

There is no glitz, no retinue, no pretense. Except for the gleam of a silver cup on the dining room sideboard, there’s no reason to suspect that this friendly, tousle-haired 26-year-old with the deflated balloons on his mailbox is the reigning U.S. Open golf champion.

“I can believe it, but I didn’t expect it this early,” Simpson says of his first major title, won in thrilling fashion June 17 in San Francisco. His final score of one over par was enough to win the Open in only his second appearance. With it came headlines and a $1.44-million purse.

All that is great, but Simpson says he learned something even more valuable that week with Dowd. “The lesson I took away, and she and I talked about it that week, was that majors are majors, and you have to give them credit, but at the same time, it’s four rounds and 72 holes just like every tournament we play.”

Kicked back, smiling, and shoeless on a beanbag in his son’s playroom, he makes you begin to believe it, too. That maybe it’s no big deal: a U.S. Open title; a professional golf career that’s catching fire; a beautiful, growing family; an army of supportive friends and relatives; a reputation as a straight shooter, a hard worker, a lover of the game, a calm competitor, a great guy.

No sweat.

No sweat? Can it really be so simple? Does it all really come so easily for Webb Simpson?

Hard work and love of the game 

“Webb dug it out of the dirt right here,” says Ted Kiegiel, director of golf at Carolina Country Club in Raleigh who has coached Simpson since he was 9. Riffing on a famous quote by Ben Hogan about earning his game the hard way, Kieigel says Simpson’s no different: “He out-practiced everybody.”

“He did not inherit any talent,” says Webb’s father, the self-effacing Sam Simpson, co-CEO of Raleigh real estate firm Prudential York Simpson Underwood.  “His hard work is what did it. His hard work did it for him, and his love of the game.”

Inherited talent or not, Simpson did show unusual promise as a young golfer. “I could tell that he was very gifted, just blessed, with natural talent,” Kiegiel says. “Early on in his development, he could pick up and learn skills that were far beyond his years. He demonstrated all the qualities that you’d want to have to build a great player.”

Kiegiel’s not the only one who noticed. Raleigh noticed, too.

Racking up countless junior tournament wins, Simpson gained not just local but also national recognition even before he entered Broughton High School. After leading the Capitals to three state championships and becoming a three-time conference player of the year, Simpson ranked as Golf Week/Titleist’s top high school senior in the country. As an Arnold Palmer scholar at Wake Forest, Simpson was ACC Freshman of the Year, a three-time All American, and 2008’s ACC player of the year.

It’s safe to say that much of Raleigh has been on active “Webb watch” for the better part of a decade.

A life of intention

That kind of consistent success from an early age is a decision, Kiegiel will tell you. Plain and simple. Unlike many talented, promising young players whose attention gets snagged along the way by girls, friends, or other sports, Simpson decided to stay focused. Unlike others who lose their passion and flame out early, Simpson decided to keep it fun, and maintained that love of his sport. And since then – since his success has been established with PGA tour wins, worldwide fame, and sponsorship by Polo Ralph Lauren, Titleist and Geico – Simpson has made other decisions that have led him to where he is today. Big, uncommon decisions.

Choosing, for instance, in his early 20s, a family life over a night life, a family house over a trophy house. Long-term friendships over hangers-on. He has chosen balloons-on-the-mailbox celebrations and his parents as confidants. He skipped the British Open just weeks after his groundbreaking U.S. Open win to be with Dowd for the birth of his second child. He Tweets about his faith, his love for his wife, and what he had for dinner, and often in that order.

It doesn’t take a lively imagination to picture another scenario for a young, handsome, hotshot athlete with winnings in the bank and the world at his feet. Simpson’s decisions to buck that tide result in what you see: a relaxed young dad surrounded by his family at home on the weekend, soon to wash up and throw on a tux to serve as groomsman in an old friend’s wedding. His parents will be there, too.

Overcoming doubt and hard times 

Webb won’t say his path has been easy. There have been times he has doubted himself.  Twice, he almost lost his PGA Tour card. But he’ll also tell you he just plain loves what he does, and he’s happy to take the difficult with the good.

“Loving the game has really helped me in times where I’ve struggled,” Simpson says. The passion is plain to see. His eyes sparkle with it, and his body leans forward to emphasize it. He is unabashed in his plain-spoken adoration of golf.

But it’s more than love, Kiegiel says: “He wants to win. He just has that driving force in him, and that’s been amazing for me to watch.”

Webb’s competitive spirit and love of golf were stoked by his father, who saw the desire in his 8-year-old son. By the time Webb was 10, he was playing in tournaments and with his dad and his dad’s friends, including Speck Underwood, Sam Simpson’s business partner and Webb’s godfather, at Carolina Country Club.

“He learned the integrity, he learned the honesty, he learned the sportsmanship from these men and his daddy,” says his mother, Debbie Simpson. “He learned how fun the golf game could be, but he learned to want to win.”

“Debbie didn’t care how much golf I played, as long as I was out playing with Webb,” Sam Simpson says.

His mom says young Webb – the fifth of six children – practically lived at the golf course. “I would drop him off in the summers at seven in the morning, or before, and sometimes the course wasn’t even open, and he’d get there when the bag boys would get there,” says Debbie Simpson. “And then one of us would pick him up at dark. During the school year, after school we’d go get a snack, and I’d drop him straight off. Same thing. Rain or shine. He wanted to learn how to play in the rain.”

Play in the rain, hit around trees, try all kinds of “crazy shots,” Simpson recalls. “I’ve always been kind of a kid at heart. Spending 12-hour days at the golf course, sometimes I’d get bored. I’d go drive stuff through the trees. I never was the best ball striker. That was something that kind of developed last year. I think I just learned to play using my imagination. That has been the greatest part of my game, is my mind.”

No small thing, if you ask Jerry Haas, who coached Simpson during his four years at Wake Forest. Using his imagination – perfecting those “crazy shots” – helped seal the U.S. Open title for Simpson, who nabbed the trophy with an unlikely, graceful chip from an awkward lie in the rough that landed within a few feet of the pin on the 18th green.

The steep and quirky Olympic Club course “really played into his hands,” Haas says. “It let him be creative.”

Calm under pressure 

Another factor at work that Sunday, remarked upon by many, was Simpson’s ability to keep a cool head.

Phil Ratliff, who coached Simpson at Broughton, says that even then he played “with a great deal of poise and great humility…It calmed everybody else down, and people realized that good golf could be played under situations that would seem to be the most strenuous or stressful.”

Haas says something similar: “He was one of the rare kids who slowed down when the going got tough. And he’s the most honest kid I’ve ever had. By honest, I mean he never had an excuse for a bad shot or a bad play. He took full responsibility; he never blamed anybody or anything. He knew he was responsible for all of his actions.”

Perhaps it’s unsurprising that Dowd Simpson, her husband’s constant companion, agrees that he has a solid head on his shoulders. “Webb is so rare,” says Dowd, a stage and film actress who met Simpson when they were students at Wake Forest University. “He is so kind and gentle, and yet he’s a fighter, and has such ambition, and he does such a great job of balancing that.” Like her husband, Dowd grew up in a big family, the eldest of five, in a Charlotte neighborhood not far from where the couple lives today.

Dowd was nearly eight months pregnant with Willow Grace, born July 28, when she accompanied Webb to San Francisco for the Open. She walked every single hilly hole of the course over four straight days. They communicated silently along the way, using private symbols. There’s one for “Do you need water?” and another for food. A third is a simple “ I love you.”

“Webb says that he really relies on me to communicate how far his ball is from the hole based on my claps and woos,” Dowd says, “which really helps him and Paul (Tesori, Simpson’s caddie) when they can’t see the green from the fairway.”

Knowing Dowd was there, Webb says, “I had peace in the back of my mind no matter what happened.”

What happened is now enshrined in U.S. Open history, but it wasn’t immediately clear to the couple, who waited out the completion of Graeme McDowell’s round in the clubhouse, watching the slightly delayed coverage on TV. If McDowell made a 25-foot birdie putt, he would force a playoff with Simpson; if he missed, the Open title belonged to Simpson.

“We’re watching him set up for the putt on TV, but outside, we’re hearing that he missed the putt – it was a big sigh – so Webb and I were looking at each other thinking, ‘Wait, did that just happen?’ Then it is confirmed on television, it really did just happen…we just won the U.S. Open! It’s crazy. I let out this huge scream.”

After a head-turning stop at Wendy’s on the way to the airport, the two – and the trophy, “in the big silver box it came in” – took a midnight flight back to Charlotte, talking, not sleeping, the whole way home.

Setting his own benchmarks

That trophy – a gorgeous, hand-engraved cup that lists U.S. Open winners going back to 1895’s Horace Rawlins, sits gleaming on a sideboard in the Simpsons’ dining room. It will be engraved with Simpson’s name when he hands it back next year. In the meantime, he jokes he’ll “write it on with a Sharpie.”

Current high spirits and good fortune aside, it hasn’t always been easy for Simpson. When he almost lost his PGA Tour playing privileges, advice from his college coach helped. “He said something about ‘the only thing that matters in this game is that you’re always getting better, even if it’s just a little bit.’ And I really took it to heart. I don’t think about winning as much as I used to. It really helped me in 2010 when I was on the border of losing my card, but I knew I was a better golfer than I was a year before.  I just kept working on it.”

That mentality – that tournament wins are less important than personal improvement – gives Simpson an unusual ability to handle adversity, says Kiegiel, who still travels to advise and coach his former young charge. “He looks at life like it’s already planned out. His faith is so important to him,” Kiegiel says. “He’s almost driving in a car that’s on cruise control, and what will happen is meant to be. And so, he’s at peace with that.”

His faith is indeed central to Simpson; he says it informs his every day and every game and will largely form the subject matter of a new blog he’s planning to write.      continued on page 94
He has been vocal about his faith in public – filling his Twitter feed almost daily with lines of Scripture, thanking God for his blessings – but in conversation, he sticks to the secular.

Believing God has a plan for his life doesn’t mean Simpson leaves well enough alone. “It’s not like I wake up and don’t want to go to the course and try to improve,” Simpson says, “where I think other guys might have that problem. They just play as their job.”

Family comes first 

Not giving up, mastering mistakes, and dedicating himself to golf in full would seem to leave time for little else. But it’s clear, after spending some time in the warm and busy Simpson household, that for Webb, his family comes first.

“In my parents, I saw a strong marriage and a great relationship between them that made me feel comfortable, safe, and loved, and that’s one of the things I want to emulate for our children,” he says.

Dowd is right there with him. They’re devoted parents to James, now 20 months, and baby Willow Grace, and devoted partners to each other. “I want to make sure Webb still knows that he’s first, and that I’m his wife first.”

Dowd says the two of them – used to living out of suitcases for weeks at a time on tour – love nothing more than a quiet night at home. To celebrate his U.S. Open win in the one day he had at home before flying to Connecticut to play in the Travelers Championship, Webb says they “did laundry, hung out, kind of relaxed.”

The pair clearly share a common vibe. Perhaps that’s one of the things Webb’s dad saw in Dowd when he met her at a Raleigh party the summer she was a rising sophomore at Wake Forest, and, in an oft-told story, jokingly offered her $100 if she’d take his son – then about to arrive at Wake as a freshman – on a date. “If he’s half as cute as you are, I’ll do it for free,” she replied. Cue melting hearts in all directions, and then, fast-forward to the meet-cute apex: In his first week at Wake, Webb spots a beautiful girl across the room at a party, hopes she might be the one his dad told him about but fails to muster up a hello. The next day, a mutual friend brings the same girl over for an introduction, and it’s her, Dowd Keith, the girl his dad has told him about. The rest is history.

Can you blame Webb Simpson for feeling like his life is pretty nicely mapped out?

On that map there is always Raleigh. This fall, Webb will be back in town to headline a fundraising tournament his sister, Blake Fricks, is organizing Nov. 14 at Raleigh Country Club to benefit Neighbor to Neighbor, the Southeast Raleigh nonprofit that benefits at-risk youth. She is its development director.

Meanwhile, there are tournaments to play, a blog to launch, and new baby girl to help care for as Simpson enjoys his year as U.S. Open champion. At only 26, his career in many ways is just beginning.

Golf legend Arnold Palmer, whose scholarship Simpson held at Wake Forest, described Webb in an email as “one of the great competitors in the game today.” Says Palmer, who should know: “He has started out with a great life, a great wife and family, and has nothing but good news to look forward to.”

As Webb Simpson heads toward the door this Saturday afternoon, eager to be on time for his friend’s wedding pictures, his hair is wet from a two-minute shower, his tuxedo shirt is not yet tucked in. But he obliges a visitor without a glance at his watch. Sure, he’ll hoist that silver cup and smile for the camera; sure, he’ll answer one more question. He takes his time to kiss his wife, mother, and little boy goodbye, bids gracious farewells to everyone else, and shows no urgency, no impatience. As the kitchen door closes behind him, the clock says 3:40 p.m. Not a second later than the time Simpson said days in advance he would have to leave that day. It all comes down to decisions. So far, Webb Simpson’s got that part down.