HONOLULU -- Long on faith and armed with a short putter for the first time in his PGA Tour career, Webb Simpson prayed and prayed -- and preyed -- on Waialae Country Club Thursday in the opening round of the Sony Open in Hawaii.
Simpson didn't bring the charming Seth Raynor design to its knees, but that's OK, because he was more than happy to all but genuflect his way around it on a gorgeous sun-splashed morning.
Hey, everyone has his own pre-shot routine.
Thanks to a record-tying 7-under 28 on the front nine (his second nine), Simpson caught England's Paul Casey for the lead at 8-under-par 62. That was quite a feat for the former U.S. Open champion, who was nervous about bringing a new date to the ball, so to speak -- a 34-inch Odyssey White Hot putter that replaced his longtime sweetheart, a Ping Craz-e model.
"Today was a big day for me," Simpson, 29, said with relief on his face. "I was extremely nervous, first round on the PGA Tour with a short putter, bit I just had a couple of [Bible] verses in my yardage book today that I kept reading, and I stayed calm. Today was a hurdle I felt like I needed to get over, and I'm just real thankful."
Simpson's wife, Dowd, found the soothing passages. One of them comes from Romans 8:31, which reads, in part: "If God is for us, who can be against us?"
"Basically the idea is God is for me, he's on my side. Put my focus on Him instead of other people," Simpson explained.
"Honestly," Simpson interjected, noting how he outmaneuvered the golf gods," I know religion gets thrown around a lot, but I could have done it today without God and without Scripture."
Simpson said he was genuinely fretting over his first round of 2015. He had been using a belly-length putter since his first semester at Wake Forest in 2004. He knows that players who use anything other than a standard length putter are liable to be under scrutiny this year, the last before the USGA/R&A anchoring ban takes effect. The pressure on him was enough to prevent a decent night's sleep.
True, he did try out the new flatstick at the Dunlop Phoenix in Japan last fall, but that's what you might call a soft opening, as it were.
Simpson actually birdied eight of his final 10 holes, two-putting from off the green at the par-5 18th and then converting on the first four holes of the front side, with only one putt under 15 feet. He also made from 13 and 20 feet, respectively, at Nos. 6 and 7 and capped the round with another two-putt birdie at the par-5 ninth.
The story of this opening round wasn't all about the 23 putts he needed, however.
After a disastrous Ryder Cup appearance, one in which he embarrassingly popped up his opening drive in four-ball match with Bubba Watson and went 0-2 in limited action for USA, Simpson visited one of the high priests of golf, instructor Butch Harmon. The half-day range session in November already is paying dividends. He hit 10 of 14 fairways and 13 greens in regulation with just slight adjustments to his backswing, mainly keeping the club more in front of him instead of getting it trapped behind with the path too far to the inside.
Still, as heartening as his improved ball striking was, it couldn't compare to his work on the greens. "It was one of the best putting rounds I've ever had, to be honest," he said. "I've been putting well with it, but it's easy to putt well at your home course playing with your buddies."
Oddly, Simpson's effort did follow a familiar pattern for him at Waialae CC. He beat his previous best score by four strokes, but in four of his previous five starts here, his opening round turned out to be his best of the week.
"Golf is a funny game," said Simpson, who tees off at noon HST today in round two with Luke Donald and Matt Kuchar. "Any time you start playing solid, it just gives you confidence. … I've got a long three rounds to go, and a lot can happen. But a good start."
Amen to that.