PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Starting with the largest Sunday lead ever at The Players Championship was harder than Webb Simpson imagined. Hearing one big roar after another from Tiger Woods playing four groups ahead of him didn’t help. Through it all, Simpson managed his game and his nerves.
Only when he had the crystal trophy did he start to crack.
He looked out at his wife, Dowd, a big supporter during the past few years of frustration as Simpson coped with the ban on the anchored putting stroke he used to make two Ryder Cup teams and win the U.S. Open.
And he thought about his mother at home in North Carolina, her first Mother’s Day since Simpson’s father died in November.
“It’s been a tough few months for my mom, my brothers and sisters,” Simpson said as his voice began to crack. “This is a little beacon of light for my mom, to get this done on Mother’s Day.”
There was never any doubt.
Simpson navigated his way through a few mistakes, but not too much stress in his four-shot victory Sunday at the TPC Sawgrass. Staked to a seven-shot lead, no one got closer than four shots, even after Simpson made double bogey on the 18th hole when his only remaining task was to finish the hole. He closed with a 1-over 73 to end more than four years without winning.
Woods made another big run that revved up the crowd and revived hopes that he was close to winning. So did Jason Dufner, Jimmy Walker and Danny Lee. None could do enough to catch Simpson during a week of low scoring at the final Players Championship in May.
“It was harder than I thought,” Simpson said. “There’s so much noise in front of us with Tiger, and you wonder what everybody is doing.”
The key moment for Simpson was hitting just short of the green on the par-5 11th to set up a two-putt birdie, and then finding the island green on the 17th when he had a six-shot lead.
“Once I got to 17 and the ball was on the green,” he said, “internally I was celebrating.”
Justin Thomas left the TPC Sawgrass as the No. 1 player in the world. He closed with a 66 to tie for 11th, more than enough to end Dustin Johnson’s 15-month reign at the top of the ranking. Thomas is the 21st player to reach No. 1 since the ranking began in 1986, and the seventh American.
“I’m very proud to have gotten there, but it means more to me how long I can hold it,” Thomas said in a text message.