Bubbalicious - Bubba Watson at The 2012 Masters
What next for 'Bubba Golf'? In the aftermath of yet another thrilling Masters, when everyone needed a little lull in the golfing schedule to let the events at Augusta this April, including two shots of breathtaking and historic proportions, settle into the game’s folklore, that is the lasting question.
“We had 135 to the front,
which was the only number
I was looking at. I think we
had like 164 to the hole, give
or take, maybe a little less.
And I hit the 52-degree, my
gap-wedge, hooked it about
40 yards, hit it about 15 feet
off the ground until it got
under the tree and then
started rising. Pretty easy.”
It is said that shot-making is going out of the game with the new technology but Watson, who learnt to bend the ball in all directions by hitting through, round and over the trees of his back yard in Bagdad, Florida, with lightweight plastic balls, rarely hits a straight shot. Every drive is a monster with 50 yards of bend, right or left and on every approach shot it is as if he is hitting to a pin on the edge of the most devilish green. His game is made for Augusta.
“We always joked about Bubba Golf, my caddie has always called it Bubba Golf,” Watson said. “We always say it walking down fairways. I just play the game, the game that I love. And truthfully, it’s like Seve played. He hit shots that were unbelievable. Phil Mickelson hits the shot, he goes for it. And if you watch Phil, he goes for broke.
That’s why he wins so many times. That’s why he’s not afraid. So for me that’s what I do. I just play golf. I attack. I always attack. I don’t like to go to the centre of the greens. I want to hit the incredible shot; who doesn’t? That’s why we play the game of golf, to pull off the amazing shot. I just play golf, fun-loving Bubba, just try to have fun and goof around.”
Such an uninhibited approach is not going to work all the time and is perhaps not for everyone. “We are all impressed with Bubba’s free style,” said Luke Donald, whose consistency in 2011 made him the world No. 1 but who was never in contention at Augusta. “Never had lessons, such a natural golfer, just kind of going out and having some fun. It’s a good attitude to have in a way. It’s good for the game. But it’s not going to work for everyone and I think everyone has probably not as much talent as Bubba. A lot of people need to work hard on their games.”
Certainly, seeing Donald under pressure to retain his world No. 1 status by earning that elusive first major can be harrowing, as is watching Lee Westwood miss putt after putt. In fact, in contrast to the last few years where he has struggled most down the stretch, here Westwood seemed to be freed up at the end as he holed for a birdie at the final hole and tied for third place. So there was something for the Worksop man to take from the week, unlike for Tiger Woods who was too busy playing “golf swing” and failing to live up to his own technically high standards. The swearing and club kicking failed to live up to everyone else’s standards of decorum. His coach, Sean Foley, told everyone that the criticism of the former world No. 1 “has got to stop”. Hardly. The win at Bay Hill perhaps raised Tiger’s own expectations too high but the thought persists that if he just played golf he is more than talented enough still to win majors. Woods can learn from Watson. What Watson does not have to worry about is a former coach writing a book about him – he has never had a coach.
Watson became the eighth firsttime major winner in a row. Who of that list will elevate themselves to multiple-major champion status? Rory McIlroy, you would have thought, although possibly not at Augusta where he not so much revenged the demons of last year but added new ones; Charl Schwartzel, Martin Kaymer, both young enough and talented enough, surely; and Louis Oosthuizen, who very nearly added to his runaway victory at St Andrews in 2010 before falling to the genius of Watson at the second playoff hole.
With Augusta National showing a curious liking for left-handers – that’s five in the last ten years going back to Mike Weir in 2003 plus the three jackets for Mickelson – Watson must certainly be a threat to win the Masters on more occasions. The US Open, with its stifling rough, maybe not; the Open, at certain venues including St Andrews, possibly; the USPGA, well, he almost won that in 2010 when he lost a playoff to Kaymer.
Watson admits to getting antsy and nervous when in the lead in a tournament. But in years gone by he was in danger of squandering his talents. “A few years ago, I was living the wrong way,” he said. “Every golf shot was controlling how mad I got, how I was on the golf course. But off the golf course, outside the ropes, as soon as I signed my scorecard, I didn’t care if I shot 90 or 60, I was the fun, goofing‑around little kid, joking around with everybody. But on the golf course, I was just going the wrong way, because I thought that I was good enough to be where I am today. I was so wrapped up in what everybody else was doing; why is he beating me; why is this; why is that; why can’t I make putts; why can’t I make the cut; why can’t I do this?”
A supportive wife, a former basketball player, and caddie helped Watson to see the light and he had won three times before winning at Augusta. But just weeks before he had blown the third-round lead at the WGC/Cadillac Championship by spraying the ball all over Doral’s front nine.
Paired with Oosthuizen at Augusta, it was a compelling contrast with a player who may have brief visits to the top of the leaderboard but always looks reassuringly calm with that picture- perfect swing when he is in the thick of it. Should the leading pair stumble – as Peter Hanson did in slow-motion and Mickelson did by hacking around right-handed in the trees at the short fourth for his second triple-bogey of the week – surely it was the clinical South African, not the jumpy Floridian, who would take advantage.
Oosthuizen’s winning moment appeared to have come at the 2nd hole – far to early in the day, of course, but what a moment as his immaculate 4-iron from 253 yards pitched inch-perfect at the front of the green and curled around to the right and right into the hole. It was only the fourth albatross in the history of the Masters, now one on each of the par-fives. As for Gene Sarazen in 1935, would this be instrumental in a victory? In fact, as the player admitted, merely keeping his composure for the rest of the round was a significant accomplishment.
Watson admitted to wanting to run over to Oosthuizen and high-five him the minute the ball finally dropped in the hole. Watson is self-diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder and those around him concur. Anything routine and the mind wanders but trying to win a major is hardly routine and nor is extracting yourself from deep in the Augusta pines. At such moments a hyper-concentration takes over and it helped Payne Stewart, who also suffered from the condition, to win three majors.
Watson tied Oosthuizen by making four birdies in a row, starting at the 13th, one of the many holes on the course that suit his powerful fade/slice.
At the 10th hole, the second of the playoff, there was no slice, his drive merely travelled further and further into the trees on the right, deeper than where he was in regulation. But Watson has a mantra: “If I have a swing, I have a shot.”
“As soon as I saw it, it just set up for a perfect draw, well, hook,” he said.
“We had 135 to the front, which was the only number I was looking at. I think we had like 164 to the hole, give or take, maybe a little less. And I hit the 52‑degree, my gap-wedge, hooked it about 40 yards, hit about 15 feet off the ground until it got under the tree and then started rising. Pretty easy.” It was anything but easy. Television coverage, with no overhead camera and no fairway reporters on the scene, did not do it justice. A picture was circulated in the days afterwards of an aerial of the hole with the seemingly impossible line of the shot superimposed.
To try it was brave, to pull it off, the ball finishing ten feet from the hole, unreal.
It was a good thing the shot came off otherwise the playoff might have been halted due to darkness – there was time for perhaps one more hole – and then resumed the following day on what would have been Ballesteros’s 55th birthday.
Instead, Watson, after dissolving into tears in the moment of victory, was back home with newly-adopted baby son Caleb. “Golf is not my everything,” he said. He was to become a cult hero on the chat show circuit but on the Sunday evening he had admitted not being one to seek attention. It is just that he does goofy things, like buying General Lee from the Dukes of Hazard television show and sending crazy videos out on social media.
But in terms of week-in, week-out attention on his golf, that he might find claustrophobic, given any already awkward relationship with the golfing press – his bizarre comments about Paris when missing the cut in the French Open last year being just one example. At Augusta, he said: “Tomorrow, there’s going to be a new tournament and y’all are going to write about other people. Y’all are going to forget about me tomorrow, you know what I’m saying. I’m going to have to keep living my life and do everything.”
Somehow, it is unlikely that this Masters, or its winner, will be forgotten for a very long time.