BETHESDA, Md. – Just off the sixth tee box at Congressional Country Club, a group of twentysomethings were huddled together plotting something and whispering to each other, waiting for the 8:28 tee time to walk past.
“One, two, three. . . ,” their leader whispered. As Bubba Watson made his way past, the three guys broke into a version of The Golf Boys’ “Oh, Oh, Oh,” which was somehow more tone-deaf than the original.
Watson didn’t look up, just as he hadn’t when another group had belted the song on the previous hole. In fact, Watson’s galleries resembled a karaoke bar all day.
When it wasn’t singing, it was a constant chorus of “Bubbbbaaaas” and “ ’Atta boys” – the sheer frequency of which might only be rivaled by the Phils and Rickies in the field.
And for 15 holes on Thursday, Bubba had the game to back it up.
Turning off the difficult back nine (his first) in 1-over 36 (eight pars and a bogey at 17), Watson hit a Bubba-long drive at No. 1, leaving just a half-wedge into the green. But Watson seemed to hit a wedge-and-a-half, instead, skulling the ball over the green like a 15-handicapper. He went on to get up-and-down for par after a drop from the TV tower and the people cheered even louder. Following Bubba is as much about the escapes from danger as it is about watching the “scary long” drives, as Tiger Woods once called them.
After a run-of-the-mill par at No. 2, Watson went on to birdie Nos. 3-6, narrowly missing an eagle putt at the sixth. After tapping the last one in, he was at 3 under and in a share of the lead. And the crowds cheered even louder.
But then Bubba showed why he has as many majors as Bubba Dickerson, rather than Tom Watson.
He made a nasty bogey at the par-3 seventh, hitting at least two clubs too much to the back fringe and failing to get up and down. He bogeyed the eighth with a three-putt from 25 feet. And after hitting his first errant tee shot of the front nine into a fairway bunker at the long par-5 ninth, Watson failed to two-putt from the back of the green to the front-right pin.
Just like that, it was an even-par 71. In three holes, he went from being paraded into the media center as the tournament co-leader to huffing away from the scorer’s room, refusing to comment.
But the takeaway from Thursday’s opening round wasn’t Bubba’s 71 (which left him just three shots off the early lead). It was the excitement the fans felt when he came through. (Did we mention that all the while Watson was wearing camoflauge pants and an olive drab shirt with four general stars and a “WATSON” patch on the right side of his chest?)
With Tiger out of the field, the 2011 U.S. Open seemed in danger of becoming a throwaway before the first shot was even struck. There were no clear favorites and things seemed overly bland in the days leading up to the opening round.
But Watson seems as good a candidate as any to save the day.
After watching his theatrics during the late rounds of the WGC-Match Play and last year’s Ryder Cup (in addition to his three Tour wins), it’s clear that Watson is capable of making Sunday at Congressional as captivating as his YouTube career and TwitPic account. If he can continue to drive the ball as well as he did Thursday and eliminate some of the more “Hyde” parts of his Jekyll and Hyde rounds, Bubba fans should see no reason to tone down their excitment this weekend.
And if he should put himself in the hunt on Sunday, it’s going to take more than camoflauge pants to keep people from noticing.