IT has surely never occurred to the now two-times Masters champion, but scatter-brained Bubba Watson has the potential to be one of the most significant golfers of his generation.
Maybe even the most significant. In an era when conformity and sameness are more and more the rule at the highest level of the game, Watson’s style of play and shot-making ability is a throwback to a time when the very best were individuals with minds and swings of their own rather than mere followers of fashion.
Aesthetically at least, Bubba is a pleasure to behold. Seemingly unconcerned by a ball that resists sidespin like never before – and clubs that meekly endorse such pedestrianism – the lad from the Florida panhandle metaphorically whistles while he works. Almost alone amongst his largely unthinking competition, he plays a game rather than goes about a business. Amidst a sea of adolescent adherents, he displays the innocence and rebelliousness of a pre-teen. In short, he’s fun to watch.
And, when it mattered at Augusta National, he proved himself the pre-eminent player on the planet. On a course ideally suited to his now sadly almost unique talents, Gerry Lester Watson junior systematically dismantled a field containing every golfer of note, bar the injured Tiger Woods. But it is safe to assume that the woeful recent form of the world No.1 would have made no difference to the end result of the 78th Masters. No matter what, Bubba was going to be best.
He was also the most ruthless. Two days before even the youthful and exceptional talents of Jordan Spieth would come up short, Watson played the round of the tournament, a 68 that, crucially, took him to seven under par. On a treacherously windy Friday afternoon Bubba not only grabbed the halfway lead, he eliminated a host of famous names from contention. Had he shot a more prosaic 70, as many as seven genuine challengers – Luke Donald, Sergio Garcia, Victor Dubuisson, Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson, Webb Simpson and Charl Schwartzel – would have survived into the weekend, courtesy of the “ten-shot rule”.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Watson’s four-under-par effort on that blustery afternoon was that the course – for the second day in succession – was set up to resist any kind of low scoring. On day one, for example, the average number of shots struck by the elite field of 97 was 74.47. The number of birdies outnumbered bogeys by 391 to 250. And only three eagles were recorded. These are not numbers designed to provoke too many of the famous Masters roars.
“It was hard to see how too many guys in the field could distinguish themselves from the rest,” said swing coach Hank Haney, who guided Woods to six of his 14 major championship victories. But, in tribute to his peerless imagination and flair, Bubba did just that over the first 36 holes.
Indeed, only on day three did the eventual champion display any of his familiar frailties. Skittish, jumpy and nervous, he stumbled to an untidy 74 that left him tied for the lead with Spieth. But, even then, he was apparently unconcerned. “I’m not worried,” was his post-round verdict. “How can I be when I am still winning?”
And win he did. Less than 24 hours later, Bubba had his second green jacket. And golf has a new appreciation for his innate gifts. Even his perennially unreliable putting from short range has been transformed. By replicating the “softness” of his hands and arms in his full swing, the 35-year-old from Bagdad has all but eliminated the most painful of his Achilles heels. When he three-putted the sixth green during the aforementioned third round, it was the first time he had perpetrated such a folly in 296 holes. That’s remarkable for anyone, but nothing short of amazing for a man previously so unconvincing over four-footers.
It is not, however, for his work with the shortest club in his bag that Bubba stands out most. That honour must go to the longest, his famous and incongruous pink-shafted driver. Few who witnessed it – Speith was moved to call it “amazing” – will ever forget the 366-yard bash Watson unleashed over the corner of the dogleg at the iconic 13th. On a par-5 that might just be the best hole in the world, Bubba was left with a gap-wedge approach to the green.
Still, not everyone was impressed. Summing up the feelings of an ever-growing band of dissenters convinced that the modern ball is the ruination of the game at the highest level, three-times Masters champion Gary Player, pictured left, was almost apoplectic in his condemnation. Writing for Golf.com, the 78-year-old South African said: “Millions of people saw a man making a mockery out of Augusta National’s par-5s on Sunday. When are the USGA, the R&A and the PGA going to have more vision and cut the ball back by 50 yards? When you see people hitting a drive and a wedge to No.13, what are we doing? Where is the game going?
“The ball is going farther and we have lightweight shafts, metal heads, fairways cut like a flat-top hairdo. I’m a great admirer of golf’s leaders, but they must realise that in 20-30 years’ time – as better athletes start to play golf because it is the only sport where you can make more money at 60 years of age than when you were in your prime – Bubba Watson will be a short hitter by comparison.”
Player makes a valid and important point. The distance even average hitters can propel the modern ball has many undesirable consequences. For example, for this Masters the pin positions were, from start to finish, notable for their severity. On day three, 17 of the 18 cups were cut seven yards or less from the edge of the putting surfaces. Some were as little as nine feet from the fringe.
More of the same can no doubt be expected when the US Open makes its third visit to Pinehurst No.2 this June. On a course lovingly restored by golf’s premier course architects – the partnership of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw – America’s national championship will, for the first time in its long history, be played on a course with no rough. None. Faced with no other option in their annual crusade to “protect par”, the blue blazers at the USGA will surely take refuge in “tucked” pins on greens that are already the most severely contoured in the game. It won’t be pretty.
It’s not all doom and gloom though. Pinehurst’s wide fairways will afford the game’s elite freedom from the tee. At least for this year, strategy on individual holes will be determined by the players themselves, rather than faceless bureaucrats hiding behind their seeming obsession with the “joys” of long grass and narrow fairways. And we know who that scenario is likely to appeal to, don’t we? The guy with the most shots who has never had a lesson, never mind pored over his “numbers” on Trackman.
Already Bubba must be smiling in anticipation. If, in his brave new world, he’s even come close to thinking so far ahead that is. No guarantees there.