(Reuters) - For two years in a row, the final nine holes at the Greenbrier Classic have cost Webb Simpson dearly and the American is hoping for a case of ‘third time lucky’ at this week’s edition in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia.
In 2011, Simpson was one ahead of the chasing pack after reaching the turn in the final round but he slid backwards to finish in a tie for ninth, two strokes out of a playoff for the title eventually won by American Scott Stallings.
Twelve months ago, Simpson again squandered a one-shot lead on the back nine as he closed with a 73 to wind up joint seventh.
“That’s the difference,” the former U.S. Open champion told reporters on Wednesday while preparing for Thursday’s opening round at The Greenbrier’s Old White Course. “Any time a player wins, they’re playing quality golf for 72 holes.
“You can’t really afford a bad nine when you win. I think it’s just me continuing to keep playing well, and hopefully I’m in that position on Sunday where I do have a chance to win.”
Simpson has not tasted victory on the PGA Tour since claiming his first major title at last year’s U.S. Open but he has come close this season, posting four top-10s in 16 starts on the U.S. circuit.
His best finish was a playoff loss at the RBC Heritage in April while he has displayed good form in his last two events, placing joint 32nd in difficult scoring conditions at the U.S. Open and tying for fifth at the Travelers Championship.
“I played well there (at the Travelers), and I really played well at the U.S. Open,” said Simpson, a three-times champion on the PGA Tour. “I just didn’t score the ball well so I’m looking forward to playing. I love this spot.”
Simpson was delighted to have been grouped with good friend and fellow American Bill Haas for the first two rounds at The Greenbrier, both players having competed for Wake Forest University during their college days.
“I can’t say enough nice things about Bill Haas,” said the 27-year-old Simpson. “When I got out on tour in 2008, there was nobody nicer in terms of giving me advice, helping me out, whatever I needed.
“You want to see your buddies play well but, at the end of the day, you want to beat them. He’s one of the few that actually roots for me.”
Haas will be seeking his sixth victory on the PGA Tour, and his second in as many weeks after winning the AT&T National at Congressional by three shots on Sunday.
Fellow American Ted Potter Jr. will be defending his title this week, having triumphed last year in his rookie season after beating compatriot Troy Kelly in a playoff.
Though he has not won on the circuit since then, Potter has been encouraged by the much more consistent form he has shown on the 2013 PGA Tour.
“It’s definitely gotten better,” said Potter, who had missed five consecutive cuts before his win at last year’s Greenbrier Classic. “The biggest goal I had at the beginning of the year was playing more consistent and ... I’ve played a lot better.
“I’m not finishing 60th at the events where I made the cut. At least I got some top-30s and one top-10 and some top-25s this year. I’m definitely pleased how the year’s gone.”
American world number six Phil Mickelson, seeking a 42nd career victory on the PGA Tour, heads a strong field this week which also includes 10th-ranked South African Louis Oosthuizen and 17th-ranked American Bubba Watson.
Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes in Los Angeles; Editing by Simon Evans