While Webb Simpson was on his way to tying the course record at TPC Sawgrass Friday at THE PLAYERS Championship, his caddie’s wife, Michelle Tesori, was also keeping track of another score outside the ropes.
“I’ve been keeping track of the number of people who have approached me today and said they know Paul [Tesori] or wanted to say hi,” said Michelle, who subsequently glanced at her phone to take note of a rising statistic. “We’re at 40-something people.”
By the end of the second round, in which Simpson finished 9-under 63 and atop the leaderboard at 15-under, the number on Michelle’s phone had closed at 48.
“This is home for Paul,” said Michelle. “This tournament means the world to him.”
Born and raised
Paul Tesori, 46, grew up down the road from TPC Sawgrass in St. Augustine. He fell in love with golf at a young age due to the influence of his grandfather, who was a starter at the Ponte Vedra Inn & Club for 30 years.
His first golf tournament as a fan was in 1977 at THE PLAYERS Championship when the tournament was first played at Sawgrass Country Club across the street. At the age of 9, Paul played at TPC Sawgrass before it opened to the public, hitting balls from the dirt of No. 17 with his grandfather and the first course superintendent.
“I’ve played this course over 700 times in my life,” said Paul, who lives in Nocatee with Michelle and their 4 1/2-year-old son Isaiah. “This place is extremely special to me.”
Paul attended the University of Florida, where he played golf, and later played a few years himself on the PGA Tour. He ultimately transformed his playing career into a caddying career, working with Vijay Singh, Jerry Kelly, Chris Couch, Sean O’Hair and then Simpson, who hired Paul in 2010 after O’Hair fired him. In 2012, Simpson and Paul, who share a deep Christian faith, accomplished the pinnacle of their careers, winning the 2012 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco.
Now six years later, however, a win at Paul’s old stomping grounds on Sunday may trump that milestone for him.
“I have a feeling that if it happens, it could rival that,” he said.
Dale Wiggins knows why. He’s a longtime friend who’s known Paul since they were 9 years old.
“It’s the biggest thing for him, because it is in our backyard,” said Wiggins. “It’s where we grew up. It’s what we dreamed about as kids winning.”
Simpson, who shot a 66 in the first round and 63 in the second, also understands and appreciates the significance of what it would mean for Paul to win at THE PLAYERS.
After posting his historic round at the Stadium Course, the tournament leader called his caddie the “mayor,” laughing that more people are cheering for Paul than him.
“He can’t get from the putting green to the range without getting stopped a few times,” said Simpson, whose 9-under 63 performance has only been matched six other times in tournament history. “Everybody loves him.”
One such reason for that love is the work that Paul and Michelle do in the community via the Tesori Family Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded by the couple in 2009 to help those in need in Northeast Florida. Following the birth of Isaiah, who has Down Syndrome, they expanded the organization to add programs for children with special needs.
Just this past Wednesday, the Foundation hosted its annual All Star Kids Clinic at Sawgrass Country Club, gathering a group of local children with special needs for a golf clinic that includes a special demonstration with Jordan Spieth.
“It’s such a special week for us,” said Michelle. “We kick off this week with our All Star Kids Clinic, which is one of the most special things we do as a family together.”
So, this place — Ponte Vedra and TPC Sawgrass — and this tournament — THE PLAYERS Championship — hold a special place in Paul’s heart, and with a five-shot lead going into the third round of the tournament, emotions are running high.
“Golf has been my life, and this has been the center of that,” said Paul. “This is home sweet home.”