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Simpson’s U.S. Open win illuminates increasing rivalry

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Webb Simpson with the U.S. Open trophy. - DANNY MOLOSHOK/REUTERS
  • DANNY MOLOSHOK/Reuters
  • Webb Simpson with the U.S. Open trophy.

The thick fog that had blanketed the final round of the U.S. Open in San Francisco lifted on Monday, giving way to brilliant blue skies and dazzling sunshine.

Only golf’s increasingly unpredictable pecking order remained cloudy, no clearer to being unravelled after Webb Simpson had won the championship by a single stroke.

The 26-year-old American is one of the rising stars on the PGA Tour, finishing second on last season’s money list, but he was still a surprise champion.

Before Sunday’s win, Simpson had played in just four majors, and never finished better than 14th. He only won his first PGA Tour title 10 months ago.

“I believed in myself I could win a major, but maybe not so soon,” he said.

Simpson’s win continued an extraordinary sequence of new winners in the majors since Tiger Woods lost his grip on the sport’s blue riband events.

Each of the last 15 majors has been won by different players and each of the last nine has been won by a first-timer.

And there has been a steady rise of younger players winning the big events. Of the nine first-time major winners, six have been aged in their 20s.

“I think the game’s changing,” said Simpson. “I think the Tiger effect, of inspiring people to play at a younger age, and the access to golf has gotten so much bigger. I think the game will continue to evolve like that.”

Woods won an astonishing 14 majors between the 1997 Masters and the 2008 U.S. Open, leaving slim pickings for his rivals.

Only fellow Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh challenged his domination, each winning three majors in the same period, but that is no longer the case.

Woods, more than any other player, inspired this new generation of whiz-kid golfers. The more he won, the more popular golf became and the more kids around the world starting heading to the practice range.

His well-publicised decline has coincided with the arrival of a fearless new crop he not only inspired but instilled with the self-belief that anything was possible.

While Woods may no longer be able to dominate the game, the increased competition he helped create will ultimately elevate his achievements to an even greater level.

“I don’t know how Tiger has won 14 of these things,” Simpson said after his own nerve-racking victory. “There was so much pressure. I couldn’t even feel my legs on the back nine so my respect for Tiger grew all the more.”

Harrington showing signs of a comeback

The man who has won more major championships than any golfer since 2007 finally was back in the conversation at the U.S. Open.

Tiger Woods and Angel Cabrera have claimed multiple major titles during that span, but no one can match the trophies that golf’s forgotten man has on his shelf from the last five-plus years.

Even though he has had trouble putting up consistent numbers since, Padraig Harrington, who tied for fourth at the Olympic Club, knows the score.

“No one has won more major championships over that period than I have,” said Harrington, who will continue to try to find his game this week in the Travelers Championship. “No one.”

The affable Irishman believes he can find the form that took him to titles in 2007 and 2008 Open Championships at Carnoustie and Royal Birkdale and the 2008 PGA Championship at Oakland Hills, all in a 13-month span.

At a time when Woods was sidelined by knee surgery following his victory in the 2008 U.S. Open, Harrington was considered the best golfer in the world.

Since then, his only titles have come in the 2009 Irish PGA Championship and the 2010 Iskandar Johor Open.

Ratings up 29 percent: Television ratings for NBC’s broadcast of the final round of the U.S. Open rose 29 percent from a year earlier as Webb Simpson captured his first major championship. The 6½-hour coverage of the tournament was seen in 6.6 percent of homes in the top 56 U.S. television markets, Adam Freifeld, a spokesman for the network, said in an e-mail. That’s 29 percent higher than the 5.1 rating the network drew when Rory McIlroy won the event last year at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md.

Woods early British Open favorite: Tiger Woods’ return to the British Open after skipping last year’s event has the 14-time major champion in a familiar position according to oddsmakers: the favorite to win at 141st British Open at Royal Lytham and St. Anne’s Golf Club, scheduled to be played July 19-22. According to Las Vegas Superbook, Woods is the 10-1 favorite ahead of Rory McIlroy (12-1), Lee Westwood (12-1) and U.S. Open winner Webb Simpson (40-1). — Wire report