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Simpson aims for historic double at historic Merion

Webb Simpson of the U.S. tees off on the second hole during the third round of The Players Championship PGA golf tournament at TPC Sawgrass
Webb Simpson of the U.S. tees off on the second hole during the third round of The Players Championship PGA golf tournament at TPC Sawgrass

ARDMORE, Pennsylvania (Reuters) - Webb Simpson has an appreciation of golf history and the reigning U.S. Open champion hopes to take advantage of his crack at making some of his own at historic Merion Golf Club this week.

Simpson, who prevailed at brutally difficult Olympic last year by one stroke for his maiden major, could become the first repeat U.S. Open winner in 24 years.

Curtis Strange achieved the feat in 1989, proclaiming "Move over, Ben" after following in the footsteps of Ben Hogan, who had been the previous man to win back-to-back Opens in 1951.

"It doesn't surprise me," American Simpson said on Tuesday about how rare it has been to reproduce U.S. Open magic from one year to the next.

"The biggest factor is the courses change every year. They're at a different venue. Merion is a totally different type golf course than Olympic."

Olympic will always be treasured by Simpson, but the 27-year-old North Carolinian has had a love affair with Merion since his first visit nine years ago and calls it his favorite course.

Merion was where Bobby Jones completed his Grand Slam with a 1930 victory in the U.S. Amateur, and 20 years later more lore was made when Hogan rifled a one-iron to the 18th green on the 72nd hole to force a playoff that gave him an inspirational major victory 16 months after a near-fatal car crash.

"The first time I came here was 2004, before the U.S. Amateur. I came with my dad and a couple of guys. It was November, the weather was bad," said Simpson.

"We sat in the clubhouse with one of the long‑time members. He was telling us the history of the club, Hogan's shot on 18, the story behind that, a story within the story.

"I love history."

Simpson came back the next year for the amateur competition.

"When I played in '05 I instantly fell in love with this golf course. I grew up on a short golf course and I felt like too many courses nowadays come with a standard 75, 7,600 yards, and Merion is so different.

"We all know it's short, but it's still as hard as other courses," added Simpson, who lost to Anthony Kim in the second round of the 2005 U.S. Amateur.

AT ITS BEST

Like most of the players, Simpson wishes rain-drenched Merion could be at its best, with its fast-running, tilted fairways sending tee shots into the penal rough and the sloping greens a challenge to proper placement of approach shots.

Still, Simpson expects the grand old course to provide a worthy stage for the year's second major championship.

"Merion is going to be fun for the viewers, the players and the fans ... because if you go out and you play well, you shoot a good number," Simpson said.

"You go out and you don't play well you can shoot a really high number."

Simpson has not won since his U.S. Open triumph but has been in reasonably good form on the PGA Tour this season with three top-10s in 14 starts, including a playoff loss to Graeme McDowell at the RBC Heritage in April.

Merion's iconic East Course will be hosting its fifth U.S. Open this week, but its first in 32 years after long being regarded as too short to host a major.

Simpson is thrilled for the opportunity.

"There hasn't been a day that went by that I haven't thought about winning the U.S. Open, being the U.S. Open champion, and being announced on the first tee as U.S. Open champion hasn't gotten old," Simpson said. "I don't want that to change.

"I'm looking forward to it this week in so many ways, looking forward to trying to defend the title."

(Writing by Larry Fine in New York; Editing by Mark Lamport-Stokes)

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