By Alex Podlogar

For Webb Simpson, just getting to Pinehurst is enough. It has always been, like a 50s-something golfer yearning for the buddies trip of a lifetime, the goal, the destination.

Webb, though, can be here anytime. The house is always available. At the ready. Familiar. Warm. And blessed. Full of voices, young and old, depending on the holiday, some nostalgic, many youthful.

The golf course, though, is constant. It may mature – and it has – but its reputation is intact. So is the championship. And the championship is especially resonant when you have the trophy already, your name etched meticulously in silver and history.

But there is a trophy Webb Simpson doesn’t have. Curtis Strange does. (He has two.) Hal Sutton does. Corey Pavin does. Davis Love III does. So do Peter Williamson and William Nottingham and Sean Walsh. So do, recently, Nick Dunlap and Luke Clanton.

But not Webb Simpson.

The trophy’s figure dominates a pedestal and a Village, hunched with the putting grip of Donald Ross. (True story.) On the trophy pedestal, he stands about 18 inches, is bronze, and shimmers in the southern sunlight that drapes the clubhouse Simpson finds himself inside again. It is solid. Not going anywhere. Sturdy, like the generational sand its legacy is built upon. Were Simpson willing to canvass the lower level of the members clubhouse where the locker room is housed, he might stumble upon the Pinehurst Resort & Country Club Tournament Office. (It’s to the right and down the hall, Webb.) Inside, he might find, there on a shelf, one of those trophies innocently stored, pristine and ready to be handed to a triumphant amateur in late June, mere weeks away.

Webb Simpson was not much older than the lad in bronze when he first remembers coming to Pinehurst, that time in the Donald Ross Junior when it was so cold in December that his dad had to press firmly upon the terra (extra) firma to get the tee into the frozen ground. Nearly 30 years later, he soaks in sunshine and well-wishes on tender bermudagrass as gallery folks circle the first tee, a place he knows so well and holds in such esteem. The smile on his face is evident in his voice when he speaks. He hits two tee shots to start his practice round on Monday, walks over to the grandstand and signs autographs for the kids waiting there.

Webb Simpson is delighted to be here. And he is still searching for that one win at Pinehurst.

Webb Simpson got back to Pinehurst, back to the U.S. Open, by playing like the 2012 champion of this great championship that he is…and also like the lad stymied and stiffened for eternity in bronze.

For the first 18 holes of a 36-hole day in U.S. Open Final Qualifying in Durham, Simpson played with precise abandon, putting himself in position with five birdies in an opening round 67 at Duke University Golf Club. That was the easy part.

“After that first round, the thought was, if I just play smart, I’ll probably be ok,” Simpson says, looking back on Golf’s Longest Day. “The day ebbs and flows, but that first round is definitely easier. Then you take a break before your second round, and it starts weighing on you. It sets in. You’re playing for a spot in the U.S. Open.”

Not just any U.S. Open. That’s the thing.

Everything was different this time. Simpson first qualified for the U.S. Open in 2011. That was the year before he won this championship at Olympic in 2012, forever sealing his status as a major champion. This is the guy who’s won seven times on the PGA Tour, an established roster spot in multiple Ryder Cups. But he’s 38 now, and he’s missed the cut in his last two U.S. Opens, didn’t make the field last year, and he’s doing that one thing all golfers do: search.

Players need two good rounds at Final Qualifying. It’s all 36 holes in one day. In Durham, 84 players are competing for seven spots in the U.S. Open. It’s early June in North Carolina, a mere week before the first practice round at Pinehurst No. 2, the site of the 2024 U.S. Open, and the heat most felt isn’t weather-related. It’s instead what burns you up from the inside. Still, Simpson felt another solid round would be more than enough.

Through 27 holes, it wasn’t happening. He was searching again, 2-over through his front nine. Pinehurst was fading from view.

And it was Pinehurst that was the important part of all of this.

Webb Simpson wasn’t born in Pinehurst, but part of him was raised here. (If we want to paraphrase a line from Goodfellas, we might say, “Just the good [part].”) His parents lived here for a while, and the family spent many a Thanksgiving celebrating in the Sandhills. Years and a prosperous PGA Tour career later, Simpson and his family are now part-time residents of Pinehurst. He plays No. 2 often. And Thistle Dhu. And The Cradle…

“No. 2 is, essentially, a top 2 or 3 course in the world to me,” Simpson says. “My family has a second home here. We’re here all the time. Take all of that into consideration, and the fact that I’ve won this championship – I just had to be here.

“Yes, I could feel the build-up to it.”

Simpson is not a stranger to pressure. But this was pressure he heaped onto himself. This was about being at home. Being amongst family. Around friends. His kids. This course. This town.

“Because it’s Pinehurst,” he says. “It’s the little kid in me who first came to Pinehurst. I love, love, love Pinehurst. It would be a heartbreaker not to be here.”

He had nine holes left to save his round.

Simpson birdied 11, but bogeyed 12. He birdied 13, but parred 14. Searching. Searching. Searching…

“I felt like I needed to birdie three of the last four, and I’d be in,” Simpson says. “That was the only way, in my mind, that it was going to happen.”

Fifteen and 16, he did it. Birdies at both. “I thought, ‘Here we go,’” he says.

Webb Simpson’s favorite memory of Pinehurst is not something from the 2014 U.S. Open, when he returned to this place as a triumphant major champion. Instead, his mind plays the scenes before him. He’s 13 years old, and he’s playing the Donald Ross Junior Championship. The day before the tournament, and the day after Christmas, Webb and his dad are contending for the Father-Son title for players participating in that year’s championship.

They’re in a playoff against another twosome. It’s alternate shot. Webb’s dad put him in the fairway.

“Pinehurst No. 1. First hole. Had a pitching wedge. Middle-left pin. I remember it like it was yesterday,” he recalls.

“Hit it to 3 feet.”

Dad made the putt to win, and when the kid went to fist-bump him, Dad looked him dead in the eye. “Don’t ever do that to me again,” he said. “Hit it to 20 feet next time. I miss a 3-footer, and the whole thing is on me.”

“We still laugh about that,” Webb says.

I can’t say I don’t have my eye on the trophy this week. All the Donald Ross Juniors, all the North & South Juniors, all the North & South Amateurs – I played so many of them here - I never won in Pinehurst.
Webb Simpson

Simpson was two holes from Pinehurst. On the 17th tee in Durham, he was almost home.

Then, disaster.

Not disaster like you or I make disasters on the golf course. It was only a bogey. But it was ill-timed. It was dumb. It was costly.

“A colossal mistake,” Simpson says, and doesn’t have the heart to go into detail. “I played the hole like I was a 13-year-old kid again.”

And not the 13-year-old-who-hit-it-to-3-feet kind.

“No offense to most 13-year-olds out there,” Simpson quips, “but it was like that. As bad as you can imagine.

“I looked at my caddie and I remember hearing the words come out of my mouth: ‘That’s it.’”

Simpson birdied 18. He had done what he thought he needed to do. He birdied three of the last four holes. In his mind, though, it didn’t matter. Not after 17.

Pinehurst was lost.

You don’t get a trophy for finishing tied for fourth in the qualifier for the U.S. Open at a golf course 0.7 miles from Cameron Indoor Stadium. But you do get into the U.S. Open. Sometimes, it just takes some anxious waiting while watching the last scores come in.

“I never felt good until the last guy got done and his score was posted,” Simpson says. “I waited until we got back in the car for the drive home before I started to celebrate. I can say, it was very satisfying to have done it. I was going back to Pinehurst.”

Simpson says he doesn’t have expectations to win this week. But he does expect to play well. He’ll be free and easy. He talks of playing joyfully, of being thankful in surroundings that are familiar and comfortable and challenging in only the best way. He knows, perhaps better than anyone in the field, where to miss on Pinehurst No. 2. Maybe there’s magic in the pine-scented air.

“I can’t say I don’t have my eye on the trophy this week,” Simpson says, chuckling. “All the Donald Ross Juniors, all the North & South Juniors, all the North & South Amateurs – I played so many of them here – I never won in Pinehurst.

“I just never got that Putter Boy trophy.”

Perhaps he got something else instead.