Eubanks: Golfers put family first

webb simpson and wife U.S. Open
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Webb Simpson and his wife Dowd at the U.S. Open trophy
By
Steve Eubanks
PGA.com

Series: Eubanks

One look at the wives and children walking the fairways at the PGA Professional National Championship this week, their faces beaming with pride, reinforces what everyone already knows: Nothing is more important than family.

U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson made that point emphatically last week when he confirmed that he will miss this year’s British Open Championship to be with his wife, Dowd, who is expecting the couple’s second child in late July.

"I'm a guy who loves my family, and we're probably only going to have a couple more babies, so I have the rest of my life to play in the British Open," Simpson said. "I don't want to miss the birth of our second child. It's an easy decision." 

Parents have always loved their children, but a generation ago, this would never have happened. When Trevor Immelman withdrew from the 2006 British Open to fly to Orlando for the birth of his and wife, Carminita’s, first child, several old time tour pros chastised Trevor’s father, Johan, in the Hoylake clubhouse.

"They said to me, 'In our day, you would never leave a tournament for something like that, especially a major,'" Johan told me over lunch recently. "Times have certainly changed." 

In this way, at least, they have changed for the better.

Jacob Immelman will turn six in a few weeks. He can often be found swatting golf balls with his father at Isleworth. They are together on the road in Washington now, and as Travor said to me, “He loves the game, which is great, because family is, obviously, the number one priority.

"My situation (when Jacob was born) was a little different, because Carminita wasn’t due for another month, and I had just won the Western Open, so I thought I had plenty of time. Turns out I didn’t. But I’m glad I made the call I did, and I glad that Webb made the call he did early enough that people can prepare and it doesn’t catch anyone off guard."

Then, in a reflective moment, he said, "Golf is golf, but it is important to have your priorities in line." 

Golf should never compete with family on the priority chain. If it does, the game loses. That is why the PGA of America is encouraging families to get out and play golf together. July is Family Golf Month, an initiative through the Play Golf America campaign designed to bring parents, grandparents, children and siblings closer through the game.

Webb Simpson won’t let golf interfere with his family, but he, better than most, appreciates the bond the game can forge within a family. The youngest of six children, Simpson played with his father, Sam, from the time he was eight years old. As his love of the game grew, so did the support from his family.

"We would follow him to junior and amateur tournaments all the time," Simpson’s sister Blake Fricks told me. "At first we didn’t want to go, but then my sisters and I realized that traveling to beautiful places where all these good-looking boys were playing golf wasn’t such a bad thing after all." 

Family memories within the game tend to be among the most vivid, and not just when a sibling wins the U.S. Open. A hole-in-one with a father; a daughter's first birdie; beating mom for the first time, or razzing your brother for missing a short one to win a post-round drink: these are the stories that are retold for decades.

"Webb was playing at Bay Hill (in the Arnold Palmer Invitational) on a special invitation as an amateur because he was the Arnold Palmer Scholar at Wake Forest," Blake said. "It was one of our most special memories as a family, because we were there, standing behind the 18th green on Friday, knowing that he needed to make a birdie to make the cut. He didn’t know it. He thought he was in. When he missed the green, we held hands and prayed for something great to happen." 

It did. Simpson chipped in for birdie to make the cut on the number. And his family had a story that will be told for generations to come.

They were together again, parents and all six siblings along with their spouses and children, when Simpson won his first event in Greensboro, N.C. "Having everyone so close and being able to be there, that was truly special," Blake said.

Sam Simpson and his wife Debbie still play golf, as does Blake’s husband, Wesley, who is "playing a lot more since he’s married into this family," Blake said.

She didn’t get to see her brother win his first major. Pregnant herself, Blake trudged around Augusta National but couldn’t make the trip to San Francisco. But she was there in spirit, as was the rest of the Simpson clan.

Like most grown siblings, they are spread out, busy with kids and jobs and the hectic trappings of life. And like most families, they have lapses: periods of time when they lose touch. But they still speak, more frequently now than ever.

They have a reason to. Their little brother is the U.S. Open champion. It is a bond they will share forever.

The game of golf did that.