ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. – You think Golden State Warriors basketball phenom Steph Curry can get going on the 3s? Why, you should have been there to watch Bubba Watson at Sea Island’s challenging Seaside Course on Friday during the second round of the RSM Classic.
He didn’t realize it until he was in the scoring area adding them all up, but Watson made eight 3s on his opening nine, shooting 6-under 29. The lone outlier? The par-5 seventh hole, where he could only manage a par.
“I’m mad about that 5 now,” he deadpanned afterward. Watson would battle increasing winds on his back nine before making birdies on his last two holes to shoot 6-under 64. He is 7 under through two rounds, and refreshingly excited to see what his weekend delivers.
If the 2016-17 PGA Tour season was a parade, Watson was standing on the sidewalk, six rows deep, watching it pass him by. For only the second time since 2009, Watson failed to win a golf tournament. The two-time Masters champion had only four top 10s in 22 starts, and missed seven cuts – more than his previous three seasons combined. A fixture at the season-ending Tour Championship, Watson failed to advance past the second round of the FedEx Cup Playoffs.
So what, exactly, was wrong? Mainly he says he was too distracted to perform at his best. His 5-year-old, Caleb, was starting kindergarten, and his wife, Angie, a former basketball standout at Georgia, was scheduling surgery to alleviate pain in her knees. (On Thursday, when Watson was on the course, Angie had 32 staples re-inserted after the surgically-repaired area hadn’t healed correctly the first time.)
Bubba spent time as a stay-at-home dad and a part-time nurse, and as much as he loves the dad thing, he came to the conclusion that he really missed playing high-quality golf. This is the first time Watson has played the RSM Classic, coming on the heels of another rare fall start in Las Vegas. (He tied for 51st.)
“When you sit down and ask, ‘Dude, do you love the game?’ … the answer is yes,” he said. “So I was itching to get back out. Being at home, being a stay-at-home dad and a nurse, it just wasn’t for me. So she (Angie) gave me a couple of weeks of break.
“We’re hitting the ball good. We just need to keep going and get some momentum going our way.”
He had momentum going nicely, staying away from bogeys with a couple of nice scrambling pars early on his back nine, before he encountered a fluke stroke of bad luck. Watson smashed a tee ball down the par-4 14th that was working its way back to the fairway when it vanished into a tree. And that’s where his ball stayed. Up in the tree.
Hudson Swafford pointed it out to him, Watson’s signature pink dot marking clearly in site as the ball was lodged in a single limb about 12 feet off the ground.
“It was heartbreaking,” Watson said, “but it was easy to find.”
He dropped, hit his third shot short of the green, made a poor chip and ended up with a double bogey, dropping back to 4 under on his day. But he finished strongly. Playing in an all-Georgia Bulldog pairing alongside Swafford and fellow left-hander Brian Harman, Watson hit a beautiful approach to 9 feet at the 203-yard 17th, walking in the putt to the delight of the vocal UGA Dawg House fans inside a tent behind the green. At the 18th, he split the fairway with a drive and took out pitching wedge from 158 yards, stuffing the shot to 2 feet. One more birdie.
For Watson, who loves to move every shot he hits, playing in the wind makes things extra challenging, and demands that he focus very sharply, which isn’t always his biggest strength.
“Trust is more important when it gets windy,” Watson said. “If you look at the history of my game, windy days, I’ll have a couple good rounds, but not great tournaments in wind. So today was a nice day. I made a lot of key putts. I felt like Jordan Spieth out there today, making putts.”
Watson’s brilliant 64 was bettered on Friday by Austin Cook, another SEC product (Arkansas) who blistered Seaside by shooting 8-under 62. He took the tournament lead at 14-under 128. Cook, 26, a rookie off the Web.com Tour, has had some interesting experiences already on the PGA Tour, parlaying Monday qualifying into some quality finishes in the last three seasons.
It’s different now that he has a full-time card, though. Through 36 holes at Sea Island, Cook has yet to make a bogey. On Friday, he made eight birdies on a Seaside course that didn’t appear as if it should play that easily. Cook is four-for-four in making cuts as a PGA Tour member, and said he stepped out to the big Tour feeling ready to win.
“I knew I had the game to do that,” he said. His veteran looper, Kip Henley, calls Cook a “5-foot-7 Matt Kuchar,” saluting him for his thinking and maturity on the golf course. He may be small but he gets the job done. His best asset? “Golf brain,” Henley said. “I’ve told him, your attitude it going to make you a lot of money out here.”
Watson, who turned 39 this month, realizes the importance of attitude as well. That’s why he’s hoping for a big weekend finish, to gain some needed momentum for 2018. Consider this a new beginning.
Swafford, for one, who shot 71 after opening with 65 Thursday on the Plantation Course, enjoyed the pairing with Watson.
“It’s pretty fun watching Bubba do what he does – hitting 40-yard slices into the fairway, hitting low hooks, low slices. The guy is creative. He played nice golf. It’s crazy to see the things he does with a golf ball.”
Striking the golf ball never has been Watson’s challenge. His challenge is staying engaged, and keeping himself in the game when things aren’t going his way. For two days at Sea Island, he’s been right there.
“We know I love the game,” Watson said. “That isn’t the problem. It’s the execution. The mental part was not there (last season). After these next two days, we can figure out what I need to work on, what the strengths and weaknesses are, and starting next year, we’ll be ready to go.”