SAN FRANCISCO — In a little more than six months, they shared the stage in a playoff, became fast friends through their faith and then partners in the Presidents Cup.
Simpson joined the most important fraternity in golf Sunday at the Olympic Club with a flourish of birdies and a steady diet of pars at the end. The last one came from a delicate chip out of a hole in the rough to 3 feet that wound up being the decisive stroke in the U.S. Open.
On a leaderboard loaded with possibilities, his name did not stand out. Simpson was playing in only his fifth major and his second U.S. Open. He had missed the cut in his past two tournaments. And he was six shots out of the lead when he walked off the fifth green with his second bogey of the day.
Some four hours later, Simpson sat in the clubhouse with his pregnant wife, Dowd. They tried to take their mind off the finish by watching videos of their young son, James, who stayed behind in North Carolina. She squeezed tight on his hand as they watched Jim Furyk hit into the bunker on the 18th to eliminate his chances, and then Graeme McDowell miss a 25-foot birdie putt that would have forced a playoff.
“If I was honest with you, I believed in myself [that] I could win a major, but maybe not so soon,” Simpson said. “And I just gained all the respect for the guys who have won multiple majors because it’s so hard to do. The level of pressure is so much greater than a regular event.”
“I probably prayed more the last three holes than I ever did in my life,” said Simpson, a religion major at Wake Forest.
It was Simpson who called over to Watson, their caddies and their wives to huddle under an umbrella on the green at Royal Melbourne for a quick prayer after they won a match that set the tone in the Presidents Cup.
They are nothing alike. Watson manufactured a swing on a public course in the Florida Panhandle and doesn’t have a formal teacher. Simpson grew up at a country club and even played Augusta National when he was a teenager. Watson speaks his mind. Simpson is more reserved.
Watson and Simpson traded text messages the morning of the final round last year in New Orleans. Watson wound up beating him in a playoff, but the relationship took root. When it became clear they would qualify for the Presidents Cup, they asked U.S. captain Fred Couples if they could be partners. They won three of their matches.
Couples was wandering around Olympic and watched it unfold.
Simpson had a 68-68 weekend — he was the only player in the last nine groups who broke par in the foggy final round — and finished at 1-over 281 for a one-shot win over McDowell and Michael Thompson, who had a 67 that was almost good enough to return Monday for a playoff.
He went to No. 5 in the world. He went to No. 3 in the Ryder Cup standings.
And he extended a modest streak that indicates a quiet return of American golf. The Americans have won the past three majors dating to Keegan Bradley’s playoff win at the PGA Championship in August. It might not sound like much, but it had been just more than five years since Americans won three straight majors (two of those by Tiger Woods), and more than eight years since three different Americans put together a streak that long.