Two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson has found form before the year’s first Major, writes GARY LEMKE in Compleat Golfer.
It was the shot that reverberated around the world, magnified by what was at stake: a famed Green Jacket to The Masters winner. Louis Oosthuizen had already played his second shot on the 10th, the second hole of the playoff, some 231 yards from the green – and left it short. Too soon for the South African to panic, though. Bubba Watson was in a precarious position.
The unorthodox American left-hander had hit a booming drive, but found himself way right, under the trees and settled on a mixture of pine needles and leaves. Although he had only 155 yards to the pin, the odds remained with Oosthuizen, the one-time Major champion from the 2010 Open Championship. The crowd parted as Watson pulled a wedge from his bag.
‘He’ll be trying to chip out and hope for a pitch and putt for par,’ whispered commentator Ken Brown. ‘He’s not in the best shape. Can he get through the canopy and work the ball round? He’s wondering, “Do I risk it and give myself a chance?”’
What followed next is the shot that dreams are made of: a severe ‘draw’ that found the safe surface of the green. Two putts later and a tearful Watson was preparing for 2011 champion Charl Schwartzel to drape the jacket over his shoulders.
That started the usual roadshow of late-night TV appearances, audiences with fellow ‘celebrities’ and a place in golf’s history. Of all the four men’s Majors, The Masters remains the special one to win.
‘He doesn’t look or act like a golf champion,’ ABC World News Tonight’s David Muir told viewers on one of Watson’s subsequent studio visits. ‘His hair is a little too shaggy, his swing is a little too wild, his mind is a little too scattered and his heart is all over his sleeve.’
Sports Illustrated dedicated its cover to Watson, hailing him ‘a new folk hero’.
‘With a shot no other golfer could have pulled off, Bubba Watson wins his first Major,’ the cover screamed.
The thing is, while it’s that wedge on the 10th hole in the playoff that defined the 2012 Masters, and perhaps even Watson’s career, it might not even be the best shot he played at that year’s tournament.
In the opening round he had struck a 9-iron approach 180 yards through the trees while staying clear of the water.
His caddie Ted Scott takes up the story. ‘This is the greatest – and stupidest – shot I’ve ever seen Bubba hit. He hits his tee shot on 11 pretty far into the trees right. The ball was sitting down in the pine straw, like an egg in a bird’s nest. About 15 feet high there was a 10-foot-wide window to work with. It’s very hard to hit it low from that nestled lie and he had to aim at the scoreboard left of the water.
‘I said, “Punch it out, and you’ll have the easiest wedge pin position on the course.” He said, “But I’m known for hooking it.”
I just couldn’t compute that a person could hook it out of this lie. I’m thinking, “There’s no chance. This is going in the water. We’re looking at double-bogey, at best.” Then Bubba hits it and over-hooks it. It catches the slope short-right in front of the green, runs off the mound and trickles on to the centre of the green, about 50 feet from the pin, where he two-putts for par.
‘To this day, I can’t wrap my mind around it. For him to even see that shot as an option … my last thought was, “What kind of a freak are you?”’
Watson’s real name is Gerry Lester Watson Jnr – although the more formal ‘Gerry’ lasted all of a few minutes. His late father said he resembled a gridiron player, Bubba Smith. ‘My dad wanted a baseball player and I came out chubby in the face and looked like a big football player, and he said I’m a Bubba. I’m a football player, not a baseball player. So 10 seconds after I was born, he just called me Bubba.’
His father died from lung cancer in 2010 when Watson was 31 and one of the reasons the golfer uses a pink driver is to highlight the disease.
‘I believe my dad was watching me,’ he said after his Major breakthrough. He also once said that a pink driver doesn’t sit well with other Tour pros when he outdrives them and he finds that funny, while he also likes to button up his golf shirt to the neck.
Famously, Watson claims to have never had a formal golfing lesson, relying on natural talent and an instinct to hit the right shot at the right time. He reckons he picked up a golf club and started swinging it harder and harder – even before being told how to grip the club correctly. Once he was given a correct grip, he went back to doing what he was programming himself to do – swing for the fences.
Two years after denying Oosthuizen a first Green Jacket and a second Major, Watson returned to Augusta and won his second Masters. This time it was a little less dramatic, rounds of 69, 68, 74 and 69 giving him a three-shot buffer over Jonas Blixt and Jordan Spieth.
‘Walking up 18 was a little bit easier [than 2012] this time,’ said Watson. ‘This one is a lot different. The first one I kind of lucked into it, but this is a lot of hard work. After giving it back [in 2013] I wanted to get it back again. A small-town guy named Bubba now has two Green Jackets. It’s pretty wild.’
The tears were welling again. ‘It’s a dream to be on the PGA Tour. It’s a dream to win, and winning any tournament is a big deal. Winning the Green Jacket is a little bit of a bigger deal. So, yeah, I’m going to cry, because why me? Why Bubba Watson from Bagdad, Florida?’
Those tears are seemingly never far away. ‘I cry all the time. I cry at church every Sunday,’ he told Golf Digest. ‘I cry at stuff on TV, especially if it involves a family hardship. I won’t go to movies that are sad, knowing they’ll just make me cry.’
Watson turns 40 in November this year and has reignited a career that looked to be going south, a winless drought of nearly two years and a world ranking that had dipped as low as 117 earlier this year. Then, boom! Victory at the Genesis Open in February and he was back up to No 40 in the world and with renewed hope as The Masters again swings into view.
‘The past year and a half, almost two years, has been a struggle, because I want to be at the top,’ he said.
‘I was top 10 in the world for a few years, so not being there, you feel like: “Is this it? Is this my old-man moment where I can’t play golf again?”’
Watson reckoned he ‘never thought’ he would reach 10 PGA Tour wins. In 2017 he lost weight due to illness and had to be convinced by his wife, Angie, not to retire. ‘I was close to retiring, but my wife told me to quit whining and play golf. She’s much tougher than I am. I was focusing on the wrong things … pitiful me and not how beautiful my life was.
‘Nobody thought I would ever get to 10 wins … without lessons, a head case, hooking the ball, slicing the ball, can’t putt.’
Methinks the man doth protest too much, because when you can launch a ball off the tee comfortably over 300 yards, it does tend to make the rest of one’s game a bit easier and flaws a little easier to hide. Yet Watson’s reputation for being a prodigious driver of the ball, even if in distance and not accuracy, has created a bit of controversy for him before.
It was at the 2014 PGA Championship at Valhalla Golf Club where the PGA brought back the Long Drive Contest to the delight of the spectators who arrived to watch the Tuesday’s practice round. The 590-yard 10th hole was the scene whereby the longest drive – finishing on the fairway – would see the ‘winner’ sign over a sizeable cheque to a charity of his choice.
To the dismay of many, and disgust of some, Watson arrived at the tee box and pulled out a 3-iron. ‘I don’t think we should have a competition like that while we are trying to learn the golf course,’ he said later. ‘I’m there to play golf, not to hit it far. I’ve never been to the course. I don’t need to worry about a long drive on the 10th hole. There’s no reason to make something up in the middle of the practice round like that. That’s just me. Like it or not, that’s just who I am. That’s just what I think.’
Adding petrol to the flame was that the previous week Watson had hit the longest drive seen on the 2014 PGA Tour, a 424-yard bomb on the par-five 16th hole in the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone.
With Watson ruling himself out of contention, it was left to Oosthuizen to delight the fans, his drive of 340 yards landing where the mower goes to see off Australia’s Jason Day by two yards.
Now Watson returns to Augusta a little more understood. What you see is what you get; a player who is not only left-handed but also left-field. And in a sport which has an increasing reputation for churning out ‘manufactured’ golfers as if they’re coming out of a factory warehouse, Bubba Watson can only be good for the game.
2009 – Quail Hollow Championship (T2nd)
2010 – PGA Championship (2nd), Travelers Championship (1st)
2011 – Farmers Insurance Open (1st), Zurich Classic of New Orleans (1st)
2012 – Masters (1st), WGC-Cadillac Championship (2nd)
2014 – Masters (1st), WGC-HBSC Champions (1st), Northern Trust Open (1st), BMW Championship (2nd),
WGC-Cadillac Championship (T2nd)
2015 – Hero World Challenge (1st), Travelers Championship (1st), WGC-Bridgestone Invitational (2nd), WGC-Cadillac Championship (3rd), The Barclays (3rd)
2016 – Northern Trust Open (1st), WGC-Cadillac Championship (2nd)
2018 – Genesis Open (1st), WGC-Dell Match Play
– This article first appeared in the April issue of Compleat Golfer, now on sale!