SOUTHAMPTON, Bermuda – Even when it is at its fascinating best, such as Tuesday’s first round of the 30th PGA Grand Slam of Golf, “Bubba Golf,” while thoroughly entertaining, is not as difficult to explain as regular golf.
Case in point, the par-4 14th at Port Royal Golf Course, a hole that plays 393 yards and dead downwind into a narrow, uphill fairway. The tee shot begs caution, given that an unfriendly bunker sits within reach. So Padraig Harrington did the prudent thing, striping a hybrid into the fairway to leave himself a sizable approach. Two of his colleagues, Keegan Bradley and Webb Simpson, also played wise and safe tee shots just inside of Harrington.
“It’s unusual to see the longer hitters reach for driver,” Harrington noted. “But it’s one of the best clubs in his bag.”
Rocketed into the warm and breezy Bermuda air, Watson’s ball rode seemingly forever, though it eventually settled hole high, perhaps 25 yards right of the green. To the left of the green, some of those trademark colorful Bermuda homes hung a trio of banners – “Bermuda Loves Bubba,” “Bubba Long” and “Filthy Long” – so it was a fitting corner of Port Royal at which to put an exclamation point on just how powerful the Masters champ can be.
“So straight, it’s incredible,” Harrington said, shaking his head. “It must be easy to play golf from where he hits it.”
Hold that thought, because at the 14th, from 169 yards, Harrington hit a brilliant 9-iron to about 15 feet above the hole, while Watson, from just off the green pitched to 8-10 feet.
If you know golf, you probably know what happened next: Harrington made his birdie, Watson missed his. Precision beat power on this hole and on this day, because the Irishman authored a splendid 5-under 66 to outscore Watson, who bogeyed three times early on his back nine and settled for a 68. Simpson bogeyed the 18th to shoot 69, while Bradley worked hard to overcome a double bogey, bogey, bogey stretch early, but could get only to 71.
The frustration was evident at times, but at day’s end, Bradley embraced the feel-good complexion of this exclusive, four-man competition. He won it a year ago, and even though he has a hefty deficit staring him in the face, Bradley smiled.
“I’ve been six shots behind with less time,” he said.
Bradley speaks the truth, but he was left to search for answers on a day when he was always scratching to get back into the mix. It didn’t help that a birdie putt at the 14th hit every piece of the hole before being spit out, or that his short putt for par at the daunting, par-3 16th also lipped out. The walk around Port Royal ushers you to outrageous scenic views of an aqua Atlantic Ocean that must be seen to be believed, and it is hard not to walk off with this opinion, as expressed by the 26-year-old: “Things are good,” Bradley said.
Besides, he was not the only one to experience the ups and downs and the unexplainable that are at the heart of golf. For instance, Harrington at the par-5 17th was off line to the right, and trouble seemed to be the only possible result. At least until his ball hit a spectator, bounded dead left and left the Irishman with a nice lie. He proceeded to make birdie.
One hole later, Simpson, who had been 3 under and bogey-free on his back side, pushed his drive slightly right and it, too, hit a spectator. Only in this case, the ball bounced into the cart path and proceeded to roll back . . . and back . . . and back, perhaps 75-80 yards until it came to rest and left Simpson an uphill shot in the neighborhood of 240 yards. He made bogey.
Yes, indeed, a curious, curious game, which might be why Watson chooses to play his brand. “Bubba Golf” is what he calls it, and basically he just stands over his ball, envisions the shot and tries to make the ball do what his eyes have told him. It was working brilliantly early on at Port Royal, with birdies at the par-5 second and then some crowd-pleasing stuff at the par-4 fifth, where Watson hit a big, sweeping cut that rode skyward and came to rest on the green some 320 yards away.
“Bubba missed another fairway,” quipped Simpson.
With that two-putt birdie, Watson was 2 under, but at the par-4 sixth he completed a three-putt bogey by missing from 4 feet. He answered with an eagle at the 516-yard, par-5 seventh, but early on his back nine, Watson struggled – a bogey at 10 followed by three-putt bogeys at 12 and 13.
But he’s committed to “Bubba Golf,” so at 14 he left the others to play conventional shots from the fairway, and at 15 he wielded the pink-shafted, pink-headed driver, too, though what followed was quintessential stuff. Slicing left, Watson’s ball rode on a hard-right-to-left wind toward the Atlantic and the ball not only went left of the cart path, it bounded down past the 16th tee, and came to rest in tall grass on the edge of the cliff, in a hazard.
“My caddie (Ted Scott) said we had about 130 yards,” Watson said.
Fine, he dialed up the 130-yard punch wedge, pulled it off perfectly, and then somehow snaked in a 10-foot putt for birdie.
How do you explain that?
Actually, you don’t, because there are times when “Bubba Golf,” like regular golf, is impossible to explain.