I Think, I Saw, I HeardAugust 28, 2017

Webb Simpson at peace with his putting, a new American LPGA star starts to shine, and Nick Saban talks Justin Thomas' football ability

Paul Tesori, Webb Simpson
Icon SportswireWebb Simpson looks over his putt with his caddie, Paul Tesori, on the 15th hole during the third round of the Wyndham Championship.

I Think …

Webb Simpson has finally gotten comfortable on the greens again after last year’s anchoring ban. As recently as five months into the second season since the USGA and R&A implemented to rule, the former U.S. Open champion continued to struggle. It was this past May, on the practice green at the Players Championship, that Tim Clark suggested a grip that was a hybrid between the claw and Matt Kuchar’s way of securing the shaft against his left forearm. “That turned our season around, our demeanor around and our expectations around, in a hurry,” said Simpson’s long-time caddie, Paul Tesori. Since that intervention at TPC Sawgrass, Tesori has been telling me that the top-20s Simpson has been recording have looked better in person than they do on a computer screen or paper. How one swing, or one or two strokes, can mean the difference in contending. While Simpson’s strokes gained/putting rank is unimpressive at 102nd, it represents an improvement of nearly 80 places since the change. There is evidence of this with specific strong finished at the Dean & Deluca Invitational (fifth), the Travelers Championship (T-8) and the Greenbrier Classic (T-14), which built the confidence and beefed up his FedEx Cup points standing. In Simpson’s last two starts, it’s really kicked in. A third-place finish at the Wyndham Championship, where he shot 67 on Sunday, and a T-6 at The Northern Trust, where he shot 65 on Sunday, have Simpson ranked 16th going into the Dell Technologies Championship at TPC Boston this week. While some may be surprised Simpson is so highly ranked, Tesori and Simpson aren’t. “We’ve been close to doing good things,” Tesori said. “We’ve been building toward this.”

I Saw …

That the energy and power 18-year-old LPGA rookie Angel Yin brought to the U.S. Solheim Cup team has not subsided. I caught up with Yin after Saturday’s third round of the Canadian Pacific Women’s Open, and she admitted to being more relaxed and less nervous after going 1-1-1 in her Solheim debut. “I think my game’s grown a ton,” she said. U.S. Solheim captain Juli Inkster was not surprised in Yin’s performance in Des Moines, or her growth as a player through that experience. The team’s oldest member, 39-year-old Cristie Kerr, told me how much fun Yin was in the team room. But how could she not be, with a Twitter handle of @Angelyinlol, and posts like “From Jr Solheim to Big Girl Solheim?” That was not a front. “Juli pulled my caddie and I over, and she goes, ‘I don’t want you uptight here,’ ’’ Yin told me. “She goes, ‘You with me?’ I’m like, ‘I’m with you. I’ve got your back.’ ”

Harry How/Getty Images

Angel Yin and Juli Inkster of the United States play with the crowd on the first tee before a match at the 2017 Solheim Cup.

The true buzz Yin created was over her driving distance, which included a 340-yard poke in her Friday four-ball match. Ranked seventh for the year at 271.97 yards, her reputation in this statistical category came to light in her two performances as an amateur at the ANA Inspiration, where she finished second in driving distance to Lexi Thompson as a 14-year-old and beat her by 18 inches the following year. The beauty of Yin’s clubhead speed is that it comes from nothing but natural ability. “I don’t lift weights, don’t hit the gym,” she told me. “I hit dinner tables.” The poise comes from qualifying for the Ladies European Tour with birdies on three of her last four holes rather than enrolling at USC. Coach Andrea Gaston understood when Yin, a first-generation American with Chinese parents, explained her reasoning. “I told Andrea about it and she said, ‘Do what you do,’ ” Yin said. “So I thought, I’m going to get on that train and ride it.” In her first appearance since the Solheim, Yin rallied with 33 on the back-nine Sunday to finish T-22. The train rides into Portland this coming week with the Laugh Out Loud emoji on board.

I Heard …

Nick Saban is totally obsessed about his football team come August, but in the midst of preparing for Alabama’s season-opener against Florida State on Sept. 2, he still took my call. That in itself says something about the respect and relationship he shares with PGA champion and Crimson Tide alum Justin Thomas. It began in the short-game area of the Jerry Pate Center during football off-season in the spring, when Thomas would help the coach with his chipping and bunker play. Saban took pride in Thomas leading the Tide to a national championship in 2013, and sent him a text after his major win at Quail Hollow. Saban told me that Thomas showed the heart of a champion and marveled at the way Justin handled the circumstances of the final round. “Golf is a great metaphor for life,” said the coach. “People who can stay focused in a positive way of what happens next have a great chance of being successful, and Justin did that extraordinarily well down the stretch with a lot of pressure that he didn’t let affect him.”

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Alabama head coach coach Nick Saban during the 2017 College Football National Championship Game against Clemson.

Thomas low-keyed the friendship, telling Golf World at The Northern Trust, where he finished T-6, “It’s not like we text all the time or stay in touch. But whenever I get to Tuscaloosa, I’ll probably see him or talk to him every once in a while.” I asked Saban if the 165-pound Thomas were bigger, stronger and faster, what position would he project him in football. Anticipating Saban to say punter or place kicker, I was a little surprised to hear Saban’s response. “I think Justin would be a wide receiver or a corner,” Saban said. “But he can hit his 8-iron as far as I can hit my driver. I don’t want to make it like he doesn’t have the power to play something else, but he can certainly hit a golf ball and he’s a great athlete.” Thomas did hear about that quote and was humbled. “I’m pretty slow so I don’t know how that would work,” he said. “But I would think I’m somewhat athletic, so I’m glad to hear he feels that way around me.”

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