Webb vs. the Field: Why Simpson’s 5-Stroke Lead Is Far From Safe

Webb vs. the Field: Why Simpson’s 5-Stroke Lead Is Far From Safe article feature image

John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

The Highlights

  • Webb Simpson’s putter has been lights-out as he has built a 5-stroke lead at The Players Championship.
  • He has converted just one of 10 career leads at the halfway point.
  • Simpson has strong contenders behind him, including Patrick Cantlay, who’s ready to assert himself on a big stage.

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Webb Simpson (pictured above) put together a tremendous round at The Players Championship on Friday, posting a course-record-tying 9-under 63 to claim a five-stroke lead.

But this thing ain’t over, despite what many of the numbers suggest.

Let’s start with the good stuff.

For the week so far, Simpson owns an eagle and 16 birdies — including six in a row on the back nine during the second round — against just a single bogey and one double. His 36-hole score tied the tournament record, and his five-stroke advantage set a new mark.

He currently ranks 13th in strokes gained-tee to green, third in strokes gained-around the green and first in strokes gained-putting, the latter a monumental step forward for a former anchorer.

The oddsmakers have taken obvious notice, as well, listing Simpson as a +145 favorite entering the weekend.

That’s bordering on “Webb or The Field” territory, a phrase never before uttered.

Now for the reasons why — despite Simpson’s dominant performance so far — this tournament is far from becoming a formality.

Following Simpson’s round, I asked him if he prefers playing as a front-runner or chasing down the leaders.

“Well, if I’m the front-runner, five shots is better than one,” he said. “I enjoy it. I mean, you have a slightly different mentality, I think, especially on Sunday. But you know, there’s no defensiveness in my game [Saturday]. I want to go out and hit a good drive on 1 and just keep the same game plan. The only time you really get defensive, I think, is the last two or three holes of a golf tournament.”

He might’ve said all the right things, but there’s a glaring contradiction on his resume.

In his PGA Tour career, Simpson has held or shared the 36-hole lead on 10 different occasions. Of those, he’s gone on to win exactly … once.

That happened at the 2013 Shriners Hospitals for Children Open in Las Vegas — and yes, as Simpson suggested, it’s a lot easier to protect a five-shot lead than something much smaller.

The best reason why they shouldn’t start engraving Simpson’s name on the trophy, though, has less to do with him than his fellow contenders.

Let’s break down the competition.

Charl Schwartzel (-10) is a past Masters champion who slumped mightily for about six months, but a third-place finish with Louis Oosthuizen in New Orleans spring-boarded him to a T-9 finish last week, and he finally looks comfortable with his game again.

Patrick Cantlay (-10) is ready to assert himself on a big-time stage. After his second-round 68, he spoke about how confident he felt this week. I asked him to name the last time he wasn’t confident entering a tourney week and loved his answer: “I usually feel like I prepare really well for events and work on my game accordingly, so when I show up I’m ready to go.”

Danny Lee (-10) is admittedly a wild card, having failed to post even a single top-50 finish in a dozen starts since the calendar changed to this year. It’s tough to imagine him chasing down Simpson, but it was tough to imagine him getting to this point in the first place. You never know.

Just behind them are Chesson Hadley, whom I’ve likened to a software upgrade of Matt Kuchar, mirroring his consistency; Charles Howell III, who’s struggled on this course for years, but whose next victory is more overdue than a library book from 1978; and Alex Noren, the silent assassin who always seems to show up on leaderboards of big events.

Just behind them, a touchdown off the pace, are Jason Day, Steve Stricker and Xander Schauffele, each of whom is capable of making a strong weekend charge.

All of which should make this an uncomfortable five-stroke lead for Simpson, if there ever is such a thing.

He’s the favorite for good reason, but there are also so many reasons to believe this one is far from over.