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U.S. Open finish reverberates to Carroll County

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Granddaughter of a longtime area doctor had a first-row view to Simpson’s win at Olympic.

By Craig Worrell, Sports Editor

When it comes to professional golf, everybody has his or her favorite major.

There are those who prefer The Open Championship – the British Open – because it’s played at or near the birthplace of the game, the weather can be a beast (na’ wind, na’ golf, a Scot will say) and because the courses are so different from their American counterparts.

Some fancy The Masters simply because of the allure and the indescribable magnificence of Augusta National.

To others, it’s the U.S. Open because it is normally the most challenging test, at least in relation to par, that the PGA Tour will see all year. Plus-1 on most weekends will get a player a consolatory pat on the back and a so-so payday. Plus-1 at the U.S. Open doesn’t necessarily mean that one has conquered the layout, but perhaps that he has at least come to a gentlemanly agreement with the place, more so than the 155 other competitors.

“Son, don’t try to make me look foolish and I will return the favor,” the course may as well whisper on the first tee Thursday morning.

Last month, Webb Simpson and the Lake Course of The Olympic Club in San Francisco reached an accord. And Simpson’s life changed forever.

Or not.

At this point, one may ask why The Gazette would spend a half a page talking about a professional golf tournament played on the other side of the country when the closest relationship we have to pro golf around here, other than Champions Tour player and local hero Tom McKnight, is the odd bet or two that you can’t drive that green at Buck’s by going straight over the house. Well, it’s because the U.S. Open this year hit a whole lot closer to home than a lot of people might realize.

To generations of folks around here, the names Dr. and Mrs. Joseph Early are familiar ones. The late Dr. Early, a family practitioner, in addition to bringing countless Twin County residents into the world, produced a fine generation of young Earlys of his own, all of them good, successful people. India Early, the good doctor’s third daughter and a graduate of Carroll County High, was an all-America cheerleader at Wake Forest. Her young, smiling countenance, clad in a Deacon black and gold cheer uniform, now adorns the CCHS Wall of Fame, a place reserved for former Cavaliers who have earned national recognition in their respective sports. She eventually earned a law degree from the University of Richmond in 1982 and practiced law for 28 years before retiring a couple of years ago.

India Early Keith and her husband, Greg (himself an all-America in high school who played hoops at Georgia and then Wake), in turn begat another generation of Early descendants, again, all of them good, successful young people.

(Bear with us. The point of the genealogy is forthcoming.)

The Keiths’ youngest, Cody, was the top high school quarterback on the east coast two years ago, according to CBS Sports and MaxPreps, and will be a second-year freshman at East Carolina this fall. Barrett competed at national-level gymnastics events as a youngster, graduated from Ole Miss and is now in grad school. Graeme was a star athlete and played a year of basketball at Wake. Tanner graduated cum laude from Southern Cal, and the eldest child, Dowd, graduated from Wake with a double major. She will appear in an upcoming faith-based movie, “Crackerjack,” which should be released within the next year.

And it is with Dowd where this story takes its turn from national to local.

Anyone who watched the final hours of the U.S. Open on television in mid-June was struck by the young couple sitting in the scorer’s quarters as the final pairing worked its way to the 18th green on Sunday’s final round. Young Webb Simpson used a back-nine charge to take the lead into the clubhouse, where he was left to fret over the fortunes of what earlier in the day had been the leaders’ pairing. Simpson’s wife sat anxiously with him, watching the Jim Furyk-Graeme McDowell pairing come down the stretch. Furyk was tied for the lead until a wayward shot took him out of contention late. McDowell still had a chance, but his approach on 18 found the short rough and didn’t draw back to the hole, leaving a tough 25-foot putt for a tie. Those watching at home knew the instant the ball left McDowell’s putter face that it wasn’t going to drop.

The young wife was shown at the instant it was obvious that her husband had won the toughest tournament on the Tour. Out of respect for a man who had just lost a chance at a playoff for the U.S. Open, Dowd Keith Simpson, granddaughter of Dr. Joseph Early, physically contained her excitement, though it could have exploded through the expression on her face.

India Keith was at her home in Charlotte, babysitting the couple’s son. A rough stretch by Simpson on the front nine had sent the TV cameras scurrying elsewhere, and the home computer wasn’t working fast enough to keep up with the events out west.

“I really didn’t know what was going on,” she said. “And then all of a sudden Dowd would text me and go, ‘birdie…birdie…birdie.’ He had four birdies in five holes on the back nine. And we just started going crazy. The TV started picking him up after that and we followed him the rest of the way in. But even at that point we didn’t necessarily think he would win, being 1-over and having people like Jim Furyk and Graeme McDowell coming in those last few holes.”

But the lead held. Her daughter was married to the 2012 U.S. Open champion.

“And Dowd was so excited,” she said. “It’s a hard position to be in. You’re so excited for your husband but you don’t want to cheer against other people. They had been [on the other end of] that situation, and it’s hard having somebody else win and you lose that way. It’s amazing how close all of these guys on the tour are with each other.”

Webb Simpson’s life changed forever. Nothing can take away the U.S. Open champion’s trophy, or the fact that he will some day leave the sport as a former winner of a major.

And Simpson’s life didn’t change a whit, not for the young man whose field of study at Wake Forest was religion.

“He’s very strong in his faith and that’s what carried him through,” Keith said. “We’ll ask him sometimes, weren’t you nervous? Or, what were you thinking about when you were hitting that shot? And he goes, ‘I just don’t worry about it, because it’s already written. God’s already written my story. I make a bad shot, it’s not the end-all, be-all. My story has already been written.’ ”

Keith’s brother Jody Early and his family live in Hillsville, but India and her family don’t often make it back to Carroll County, the most recent time being for the funeral of their mother a few months back. She does keep friends in the area though.

“My dearest friend up there, Gay Lynn Talbot, we talk weekly, and she’ll text me every time he’s playing, you know, ‘great shot,’ ‘I’m so proud of him,’ ‘That’s a testament to what a wonderful young man he is.’ ” Keith said. “But she’s someone I look forward to talking with every time he’s playing, and even when he’s not playing, we talk a lot. I’ve had other friends who have written me to tell me how proud they are of the strong young man that Webb is, and about his character and his integrity.”

Golf, like no other sport, is a game of integrity, and Simpson’s integrity had no greater display than in last year’s Zurich Classic. A foot from the cup, Simpson was addressing the ball when it moved, most likely due to a gust of wind. Simpson penalized himself a stroke, finished regulation in a tie and lost in a playoff to Bubba Watson.

“It is a testament to the type of individual that he is, that his faith is important, and his integrity and his honesty,” Keith said. “He couldn’t live with himself if he hadn’t done the right thing.”

Golf is also an extremely difficult profession in which to ascend to the top. Beneath the PGA are numerous ‘minor leagues,’ and as with baseball, a very small percentage of players make it to the big league, especially for any significant amount of time. Only the top 125 each year are guaranteed a Tour card for the following year while the rest must grind it out on the smaller tours, hoping for a break. Keith had no qualms about her daughter marrying a man who was entering such a difficult profession in which to succeed.

“I knew from Day 1 that Webb would be successful, at anything he did,” she said. “He was a great kid, and we’ve always loved him. He and Graeme roomed together at Wake for three years. The story goes back and forth as to who knew Webb first, whether it was Dowd or Graeme, but he’s been very close to our family for a long time before he and Dowd got engaged.

“His parents raised him right, he’s a man of God and a man of faith, he respects his wife and loves her, and he’s all the things that you want your daughter to marry. I couldn’t have picked out a better kid for my daughter to marry.”

Simpson has three Tour wins and almost $11.5 million in career earnings, including $1.4 million for the Open title. Some would call it karma. Those folks who say ‘Amen’ before supper would call it something different. Either way, it’s good to see good things happen to good people.

And their families.