You could feel the gravity of the situation in the air. Perched the 18th green, watching Webb Simpson stand over a ball that was buried in the rough, it was clear this would be his do-or-die moment. What Simpson didn't know was that Jim Furyk was a few hundred yards away from him, making a mess of the 16th hole. If Simpson was able to somehow get up-and-down from the deep rough, odds were he'd at least end up in a playoff.
Simpson had left his approach right, just about hole-high but sitting down in deep grass. The green sloped away from him, then towards a false front a few paces past the hole. With the ball buried, there was no telling what would happen as Simpson made contact: The grass has a tendency to twist the club face, and if Simpson chopped at the ball, it could be sent flying past the hole and off the green altogether.
What happened next shouldn't have been a surprise, considering Simpson's weekend. He carded a 68 on Saturday when scoring conditions were horrendous. On Sunday, as the leaders and stars faltered, he bounced back from bogeys on the second and fifth to go on one heck of a run -- four birdies and five holes -- that vaulted him into a share of the lead. As he walked up to find his ball buried in the rough alongside the 18th green, his name was atop the leaderboard, tied with Furyk.
Making the only play he could, Simpson took a hack at the back of the ball, chopping down on it with just the right amount of force. The touch on display was incredible, and the ball gently emerged from its grass shield to land softly on the green, rolling out to a few feet from the pin. Simpson stepped up to his not-quite-gimme putt and drained it, entering the clubhouse with his second 68 of the weekend and the lead.
Moments later, Furyk missed his par attempt, giving Simpson the lead outright. He was in the clubhouse at 1-over, leading the U.S. Open. It wasn't a safe lead, especially with Furyk and Graeme McDowell staring down the 17th, a birdie hole all day, but it was a lead nonetheless.
Furyk continued to falter, leaving his approach on 17 short and right in the bunker guarding the green. McDowell, on the other hand, emerged as a challenger, chipping his third shot up onto the green then dropping a tough-as-nails putt that elicited a big fist pump and smile from the North Carolinian.
Both Furyk and McDowell walked to the 18th tee needing a birdie to force a playoff, and Simpson could do nothing but watch.
A buried lie in the left bunker took Furyk out of contention (as did the bunker-to-bunker shot he hit next), but McDowell knocked his approach to 15 feet, leaving himself a tricky downhill putt to force a playoff. There was a constant buzz around 18, a slim green surrounded by a grandstand to the rear, massive seating section on the hill to the left and a rope-line gallery to the right.
The drama was there, but the crowd waiting to erupt wasn't rewarded. McDowell's putt started left and stayed left, never moving to the right as he expected. Webb Simpson, tucked away in the clubhouse, had won the U.S. Open. And he'd done so by coming from behind and somehow figuring out how to post under-par rounds on a weekend when red numbers were incredibly scare.
After two days that left him in a hole, Simpson was able to climb out by posting back-to-back 68s, the only player to shoot under par rounds on both Saturday and Sunday. Simpson earned the U.S. Open trophy the hard way, and the chip on 18 was one final test.
He passed with flying colors, standing up to the challenge as others collapsed.