SCOTTSDALE — Much like the Super Bowl, the playoff at the Waste Management Phoenix Open featured two opponents with contrasting styles of play. There was the long, sinewy power game of Tony Finau matched against the tactical beauty and terrific putting of Webb Simpson.
Golf has long proven there’s room for both at the top end of the sport, even in the current bomb-and-gouge climate that dominates the modern game. But upon closer examination, much like the other big game happening across the country in Miami, there was at least a little more similarity between the two than a passing glance would suggest.
Or it at least helped that Simpson could uncork a 318-yard drive down the middle on the first sudden-death playoff hole, leaving only a wedge into the 18th green at TPC Scottsdale to set up a 10-footer for birdie and the victory. Not bad for a guy who came into the week 160th on the PGA Tour in driving distance.
Three years ago, Simpson hired a trainer in an effort to try to keep up with the Joneses. Or at least guys named Brooks, Rory, Rahm, JT, DJ and Tiger. Those are the only players (mostly bombers) higher than Simpson in the Official World Golf Ranking after what was the sixth PGA Tour victory of his career and first since the 2018 Players.
“We set out on a journey to get longer, but very carefully because precision, accuracy, distance control is something for me that’s always been a strength and has to be a strength for me to play well, because I don’t hit it that far,” Simpson said. “We have picked up a mile-and-a-half to two miles an hour [clubhead speed] for the last two years and so we have made jumps. But I just didn’t want to do it overnight.”
To Simpson’s point, he ranked a modest 44th in driving distance this week, with an average of 303.4 yards off the tee. It was just far enough—especially when you’re third in fairways hit and fourth in greens in regulation.
“He’s gotten longer and more flexible,” said Paul Tesori, Simpson’s caddie, adding that a visit to Las Vegas at the start of the week to see Butch Harmon paid dividends, too. “We’re able to hit 3-wood on the last hole now, which has never looked good to him before, and have a sand wedge or lob wedge in.
“He’ll never be able to do what [the bombers] can do,” Tesori said, “but in his own way he has worked hard as he could. [It’s] all these little, small things, not necessarily to keep up, but if they keep pushing it, he needs to, too.”
The win was a punctuation to an incredible tear that the 34-year-old, who closed with a two-under 69, has been on since the middle of last summer. Over his last 10 starts, Simpson has seven top 10s, including four runner-up finishes.
On Sunday, it looked like he might be stuck with another second-place showing, particularly after hitting his tee shot in the water on the par-5 15th en route to a bogey, until a fantastic rally that included a big drive and clutch putting.
Trailing Finau by two with two holes to play, Simpson drove the green on the 332-yard par-4 17th after Finau had chosen to lay up with a fairway wood and ended up in a bunker. Simpson’s ball scooted onto the putting surface and two putts later, he had cut the deficit to one. Then Simpson split the fairway on 18 with a 315-yard tee shot to leave another wedge into the green.
Even then, though, it came down to putting. After Finau outdrove him by 50 yards, Simpson rolled in an 18-footer for birdie. Finau then missed a hard-breaking putt from nine feet that forced overtime.
On the extra hole, Simpson again found the fairway, while Finau tugged his tee shot into a bunker. Both men hit the green with their approach shots, but Finau slid his 19-footer by, while Simpson canned his 10-footer to end it.
For Finau, who remains stuck on one career PGA Tour victory, it was another case of what might have been. Over the last four years, the 30-year-old talent has 28 top-10 finishes but no wins. That includes six seconds.
“Coming down the stretch I had some looks,” said Finau, who closed with a final-round 70. “[Holes] 15, 16, 18, I had some looks to win the golf tournament, and they didn’t go my way today.”
For Simpson, things finally broke his way after his own stretch of close calls since the Players win nearly two years ago.
“It could have been easy for me to get down, but as you look at those tournaments, guys played great and that's the way the game goes sometimes,” he said. “Sometimes you get handed a trophy, somebody bogeys a couple for you. But more times than not you’ve got to make birdies and those guys did it.”
Just the way Simpson did on Sunday.