By his own admission, Webb Simpson isn’t one of the games most exciting personalities. Despite being friends with magnanimous types such as Ben Crane, Bubba Watson, and Rickie Fowler, the former U.S. Open champion and two-time Ryder Cup team member prefers to approach his golf game in a more a low-key fashion. That hasn’t kept people from noticing his consistency as one of the PGA Tour’s stalwart examples of the Christian faith.
In this CSJ Conversation with managing editor Chad Bonham, Simpson talks about his love of the game, why integrity is still a key element of golf, and how his faith helps him maintain a positive attitude even when circumstances don’t go his way:
Chad Bonham: What do you love about golf?
Webb Simpson: I started playing when I was eight years old and at the time I was also playing basketball, baseball and tennis. I think more than anything, the way I got into it was that I got better at golf quicker than I did the other sports. And from then on, I slowly dropped the other sports and by the time I was 15, it was only golf. At that point, I knew I might have an opportunity to play in college and I thought maybe once I was in college I could go on to play professionally. Time has gone by pretty quick.
Bonham: What about the game keeps you coming back in times when it’s not as fun?
Simpson: You can play video games or board games or card games and it always seems like you can beat the game or perfect it. Well, in golf, you can never perfect it. The lowest round I ever shot was 58 and I felt like I left two shots out there. I missed a six-foot putt on one hole and I parred a par five that was reachable. So I think that element of thinking you can always do better is what keeps people coming back whether they’re an amateur or a professional.
Bonham: What lessons about integrity has the game taught you?
Simpson: My dad always taught me (about integrity). I remember standing on the 18th fairway when I was probably nine years old. There was a divot about a foot in front of his ball. And I said, “Why don’t you just tee it up on the front of that divot?” And he told me, “That would be closer to the hole. It doesn’t matter if it’s one inch or a centimeter, you can never, ever fib on the rules at all.” If your ball moves a quarter of an inch or you ground the club in the sand and it barely touches the ball, you’ve always got to maintain the integrity of the game. I’ve always remembered that and it’s helped me in those situations where nobody’s looking and I’m the only one that knows that the ball moved. It has allowed me to keep the integrity of the game that way.
Bonham: Can you share a story about how your integrity was tested during a golf tournament?
Simpson: In 2005, I was playing in the All-American tournament down in El Paso. I put my club down in the rough and my ball moved, but barely. It was tough to call whether it moved and came back or if moved and then stayed. I was having a tough time with it. I thought you could call a penalty on yourself at the end of the round, but the rule says you have to replace the ball if it moves. So I got done with the round and they said, “Either it moved and you’re disqualified or it didn’t move and you’re fine.” I just kind of prayed about it and I felt the Lord telling me to penalize myself and I did and I got disqualified. It was really tough at the time because it was a huge tournament and a great honor to be there. I didn’t go back in 2006 because I was hurt, but I did go back in 2007 and I won the tournament. In no way am I suggesting I won because the Lord was rewarding me, but it was just cool how I went through a difficult situation and then was able to win the golf tournament a couple years later.
Bonham: Talk me through the unfortunate situation that happened in at the Zurich Classic in New Orleans during the 2011 season.
Simpson: New Orleans was one of those situations where it wasn’t a choice that I had. It was a rule of the game. All I was doing was following the rules. I was receiving too many compliments for it because it was just part of the game. I told reporters that, “I think and I hope that every other player would have done the same thing.” It wasn’t a question of whether or not the ball moved. The ball definitely moved. In the moment, it was tough, because you’re out there grinding and you’re fighting and you’re trying to win your first golf tournament, and you hate to think that might cause you to lose the tournament. But looking back, it’s been so cool because I’ve seen how God has used it to affect other people. It was a small thing that I did that wasn’t even a noble thing. It was just part of the game. I didn’t really do anything outside the game. It was part of the game. But the Lord definitely used it. I heard from a lot of people who were watching with their kids and they were able to teach their kids a cool lesson in that moment. I thought that was pretty neat.
Bonham: Tom Lehman told me at the Colonial that he felt like the rule that cost you a stroke was actually an unfair rule. Is part of integrity defined by how you handle situations (and in this case, rules) that aren’t necessarily fair?
Simpson: I think so. I looked at my wife after the round, because that’s the third time it’s cost me in my golf career, and I said, “I’m going to say what I think about this rule in the media room. Do you think I should?” And she said, “Yes, but make sure you don’t say anything you’re going to regret. Do it in a way that still honoring the Lord.” So I went in the press room and I kind of let the filter down and I just basically said that the USGA has great rules and they’ve been that way for so long. But I said, “This is a stupid rule.” I don’t know if I said the word “stupid” but I told them it was a rule that 100 percent of the players on the PGA Tour would disagree with and I didn’t know why we still had it as a rule. It would be one thing if 50 percent of the guys thought it was a good rule and 50 percent of the guys thought it was a bad rule, but if you polled the PGA Tour, I don’t think you’d have one guy say it was a good rule.
Bonham: What is the actual rule that cost you that tournament?
Simpson: If you address the ball with the intention of making a stroke and the ball moves, you’re deemed to have caused it to move. If the ball is there and you put your putter down but you haven’t set your feet in place and it moves, that’s no big deal. But if you’re ready to putt—your next step is to take your putter back—then that’s a penalty.
Bonham: And wasn’t it the wind that blew the ball on that hole?
Simpson: Yeah, the wind was blowing pretty hard that day and also when you get that many guys playing—and we were the last group—there are a lot of footprints and the ball can rest on the edge of a footprint or heel print and it will wiggle.
Bonham: When the ball moved, what was the first thing that went through your mind?
Simpson: Oh crap, not again (laughs). It was a no-brainer that it moved. The question I had when I went to the official was whether or not I’d taken my stance. It was only five inches from the hole, so I had put the putter six inches behind the ball. You’ll see guys tap it into the hole in so many weird ways. My putter was so close to the ball and my question was, “Is that still considered taking my stance?” They ruled that it was.
Bonham: Why does integrity still matter?
Simpson: I think it matters because there are so many types of business and ways of life that are relational. In a relationship, integrity is important whether it’s between two people or 150 people. If integrity is lost, then trust and loyalty are lost and then you kind of question everything. If you put religion and faith aside, if a man does something admirable and uses integrity, then you can sum up what kind of guy that person is and he’ll be more accepted and well like. Then you get a guy who doesn’t have great integrity—whether in business or whatever—and you start questioning every little thing about the guy. It’s still so important. And at this point, it’s as important as ever because there’s so much media and this has become such a technological world. You hear about so many more things. You’re seeing the lack of integrity in so many more ways than we could 10 years ago. That’s why it’s so important that we have men and women of integrity today.
Bonham: How can integrity impact a person’s ability to influence others and be a witness of God’s love to others?
Simpson: When you’re in the public eye and you mess up, everyone’s going to find out about it. Everyone will question what you’ve proclaimed this whole time. Even if you’ve been faithful for 20 years and proclaimed Christ for 20 years, they’re going to neglect everything you’ve ever said. When the Bible talks about how the teachers of the Word will be judged more strictly, I think that rings true in every area. The more influence you have, the more careful you need to be of what you say and what you do.
Bonham: Is that a sobering thought for you as someone who is gaining more influence within the golf community?
Simpson: Absolutely. I think one of my thoughts is that I try to be reclusive too much. My wife keeps telling me that God has given me this talent for a reason. I need to glorify Him with it as much as I can and that means having conversations with as many people as I can about why I do what I do. The better I play, the more things kind of come in our way. But it’s so kind of God to give men wives because she’s helping me through it all.
Bonham: What about the life of Christ inspires you in your journey towards a life of integrity?
Simpson: He is the ultimate example of what we’re supposed to be like and what we’re striving to be. I love how He was tempted with everything we’ll be tempted with. He’s walked the path that all of us are ever going to walk. It’s incredible to know that He’s already been through whatever we’re going through and He went through it without sinning and without giving in to the temptation. One thing I always think about is when He was nailed to the cross. They were still reviling Him and saying things and spitting on Him. He had the right and the ability to pour out His judgment on them at that moment. Not only did He not sin outwardly, but in His heart, He was praying for them and going to the Father on their behalf saying, “They know not what they do.” I think about that all the time. All those stupid things I get frustrated with and annoyed by on the road—slow drivers or whatever—I remember, “Man, the God of the universe was nailed to the cross and in that moment He was still loving and praying for those people.” I don’t even understand that. So that’s kind of my go-to when my attitude or my integrity seems to be down.
Webb Simpson and other PGA golfers such as Ben Crane, Stewart Cink, Aaron Baddeley, Bernhard Langer, Kevin Streelman, and Justin Leonard are featured in the book Life in the Fairway.
(Photos: Courtesy of Webb Simpson; Jennifer Perez/PGA TOUR)