AVONDALE, La. – Bubba Watson started his return to the PGA Tour by putting his tee shot in a place from which even he couldn’t recover. Watson, who won the Masters three weeks ago with one of the game’s great recovery shots, began the Zurich Classic on Thursday with a low, pulled tee shot into the face of a fairway bunker.
His next attempt hit the bunker’s face and advanced about 10 yards. He was still away, hitting his third shot. This wasn’t a glamorous return for the green-jacket winner, but he can be excused because of his hectic recent schedule. Watson has coped not only with the post-Masters media blitz, but also the responsibilities of being a new father. He’s exhausted and unprepared, but should be commended for coming to TPC Louisiana to fulfill his obligations as defending champion. He mustered enough energy to shoot 1-under 71 at TPC Louisiana after playing his first seven holes in 2 over par.
“My body is not where it wants to be,” Watson said. “I can’t hit shots that I want to hit. I can’t hit it and make putts. I’m struggling out there. Just exhausted. Mentally exhausted.”
Watson said a top-25 finish would be a “great” week. His caddie, Ted Scott, offered this consolation: “You miss the cut, you’re still the Masters champion.”
Mediocre iron play left Watson with few realistic birdie opportunities Thursday. Three of his four birdies came on par-5s. After starting on No. 10, he was in greenside bunkers on Nos. 18 and 2 and reached No. 7 in two shots.
He hit 15 greens, but didn’t have a birdie putt inside 10 feet on a par-3 or par-4. He hit it inside 20 feet just four times on those holes, and one of those approaches was a putt after he nearly drove the par-4 13th.
He reached 2 under par after his two-putt birdie on the seventh hole, his 16th, but three-putted the next. He blamed a momentary lack of focus for the missed 3-footer.
Watson teed off at 7:30 a.m. Thursday, paired with Webb Simpson, whom Watson beat in a playoff here last year, and Steve Stricker. The scene was customary for an early first-round tee time. Approximately 50 fans gathered around the tee to watch the new Masters champion. The 10th tee, tucked amid trees, was still covered in shadows. Stricker shot 66 while Simpson fired 68 after making double bogey on the group’s final hole, the par-3 ninth.
Graeme McDowell, the 2010 U.S. Open champion, shot 69 in the group behind Watson’s. He can relate to the difficulty of returning to the Tour after a major victory.
“It’s difficult,” McDowell said. “He comes here and he spends the week shaking hands and getting patted on the back and getting congratulated by everyone. That’s fun. It’s a lot of fun, but it’s very difficult to focus on what you’re doing. It’s a surreal feeling, and it’s very hard to focus on the job at hand. You don’t feel like your usual self.”
Watson had a one-word reply when asked how it felt to be back on the golf course. “Tiring.” He said he was planning to skip his customary post-round workout in favor of a nap.
He bogeyed his first hole after missing the fairway, then had to lay up at the par-5 11th after driving into the face of another fairway bunker. He already was shaking his head and visibly angry when he walked off the tee. A few holes later, he smacked his back with the grip of his driver while holding the shaft.
Watson added another bogey on the short par-4 16th after pulling his 3-wood tee shot into the trees and hitting a wedge into a greenside bunker. He birdied Nos. 18 and 2, two par-5s, from greenside bunkers and made an 11-foot birdie putt at the sixth before reaching the par-5 seventh in two shots for his final birdie.
“The sad thing is, it’s overwhelming what happens when you win a big event like (the Masters),” Watson said. “Energy just gets drained really quick, especially with the new baby. I just haven’t had time to rest yet and take a deep breath.
“(It’s) exhausting, but being the defending champ, I had to be here.”