published Wednesday, June 20th, 2012

Wiedmer: McCallie great feels Open joy

  • photo
    Webb Simpson holds up the championship trophy after the U.S. Open Championship golf tournament Sunday, June 17, 2012, at The Olympic Club in San Francisco.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Greg Keith never has been bothered much by pressure when it comes to athletic endeavors.

That may be why he’s widely regarded as the best basketball player in McCallie School history and why he more than held his own at Wake Forest against the best of the Atlantic Coast Conference after transferring from Georgia.

But all that was out the window Sunday afternoon as the Charlotte, N.C., real estate mogul and wife India watched the final round of the U.S. Open golf tournament.

“When it’s your kids — and we consider Webb one of my children even though he’s actually a son-in-law — it’s a little different,” Keith said from his office Tuesday afternoon. “It’s a whole lot harder watching than playing because there’s nothing you can do about it. You have no control over the result.”

Webb Simpson, who delivered one of the most unexpected results in Open history, coming from six strokes down at one point in the final round to win the coveted title, is married to Keith’s daughter, Dowd.

“It’s been a little unreal,” said Keith, who estimated he had received at least 500 texts, phone calls and emails since Sunday, many of them from fellow 1974 McCallie graduates.

“We were all just sitting there on Sunday saying, ‘Is this really going to happen? Can he keep making these putts and these shots?’”

But as the Keiths were babysitting Dowd and Webb’s 17-month-old son James, that’s exactly what happened. Simpson kept soaring as those ahead of him — Jim Furyk, Graeme McDowell and Ernie Els — fell apart.

“All those guys are major champions,” Keith noted. “You don’t expect to beat those guys.”

But with Dowd by his side in the Olympic clubhouse, Simpson watched the Big Three stunningly melt away.

To make it all even sweeter, when Keith greeted his daughter and son-in-law at the Charlotte airport around 5:45 Monday morning, Simpson told him, “I never could have won it without Dowd being there, and she couldn’t have come without y’all keeping Baby James.”

The families live about five minutes apart.

Said Keith: “Webb is such a fine, humble, Christian young man. He’s who every father would want to marry their daughter.”

Keith noted last year’s PGA stop in New Orleans, when Simpson called a one-stroke penalty on himself for his ball moving on the 15th hole of the final round. That penalty forced a playoff with good friend and 2012 Masters champ Bubba Watson. Simpson lost on the second playoff hole.

But even as Keith can vividly recall much of the 26-year-old Simpson’s brief career, he has trouble remembering whether the golfer first entered the family’s lives as best friend to son Graeme McGregor Keith III or through Dowd, both Keith kids having gone to Wake.

Graeme III, by the way, also graduated from McCallie and was a walk-on guard on the Demon Deacons team that beat the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in the 2005 NCAA tournament.

“Graeme and Webb actually roomed together their final three years at Wake,” said Keith, a father of five. “And Graeme didn’t introduce Dowd to Webb. They met separately. But it seems like Webb’s been around our house forever. He’s just another one of our kids.”

Given that Dowd and Webb are expecting their second child within two months — and the fact that much was made of Webb’s relationship to all-time Deacons golfing great Arnold Palmer, whose endowed scholarship sent Simpson through college — a sports writer couldn’t help but wonder if the newest Simpson might be named Arnold.

“They don’t know if it’s a girl or boy yet,” Keith said. “They want to wait until the baby’s born to find out. But knowing how close Webb and Arnie are, you never know.”

(Note to Simpsons: Name the child “Palmer.” Would work for a boy or a girl, has family significance and would definitely bring a proud smile to the most beloved golfer ever.)

So did Keith always know his son-in-law was destined for greatness?

“I belong to a little club in California that’s pretty tough,” he said. “We were out there around Thanksgiving one year, and Webb and Dowd came to visit. He hadn’t picked up a golf club in a month.”

So Keith asked him if he wanted to hit the practice tee before they played, and Simpson declined.

“Then he bogeyed the first hole,” Keith said. “He missed at least five putts of 10 feet or less and still shot a 64 — 8 under par. Not too many golfers anywhere could have done that.”

When Keith picked up the Simpsons at the airport, Webb asked him if he was headed to the office. Told yes, Simpson asked his father-in-law to help him unpack the U.S. Open Championship Trophy.

By the way, that’s the trophy’s name. It doesn’t have a snappy name like the claret jug (British Open) or the Wannamaker (PGA championship). It’s simply the U.S. Open Championship Trophy.

Anyway, Keith said Simpson told him to “take it to the office so everybody could see it. It’s on my desk right now, and it’s one of the most beautiful trophies in the world.”

Added Keith, a phone line unable to hide his obvious joy and pride: “This has been one of my best Father’s Days ever.”

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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