Watson mixes, matches way to Masters lead

Bubba Watson during the second round of the 2014 Masters at Augusta National.
Bubba Watson during the second round of the 2014 Masters at Augusta National. ( Getty Images )

Friday, April 11, 2014

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Bubba Ball is at the top of the Masters marquee again, this time buoyed by five consecutive birdies. Bomb it, curve it, wedge it, putt it. He’s hitting green after green and, midway anyway, is in the best position to wear green, what with a three-stroke advantage a year after that hangover he didn’t know how to cure.

In an era of gurus and swing positions, Watson is an anomaly because of his power and self-taught process. He plays golf as if he’s boomeranging Wiffle balls in the backyard – only his Wiffle ball might travel farther than your Pinnacle.

Four of the creative Watson’s six birdies Friday at Augusta National came from 4 feet and in, a testament to his length and short-iron accuracy. He’s throwing a pitch out there besides fastballs and curves. There’s a change-up now and then.

Here’s Bubba being Bubba: He carried a 9-iron shot 186 yards on the par-3 16th Thursday and added this playful commentary: “I guess it’s all right.” The next day, in a span of three holes, that same 9-iron sent the ball 150 and 178 yards in the air.

“So being athletic, I guess you could say I could hit any shot with any club,” said the man whose 69-68–137 has everyone chasing, Australian John Senden being the closest pursuer. “Doesn’t mean it’s going to go perfect every time. Just means right now it’s going pretty decent.”

Watson is doing this while wearing the figurative blinkers Nick Faldo talked about for years. That means he’s spraining a rib muscle while trying to block everything out. To hear Bubba, he’s not reading about or watching the Masters and not looking at leaderboards and not getting caught up in the clapping of patrons.

“Just keep my head down,” Watson said. “Trying to stay level, not too energized, not too excited.”

That’s not always easy for Watson, an excitable chap at times, one who sometimes loses 5 and 4 to his emotions. Just take the hangover as Exhibit A. Watson wins the 2012 Masters and then slips back in 2013, partly because of some health issues like flu and strep throat. He started that year hitting the ball better than ever and ended it watching the Presidents Cup on television.

In the midst of that was a tie for 50th at the Masters, where he admittedly didn’t handle well the trappings attached to being defending champion. Watson said he got drained by the additional time sought by sponsors, media, fans, what have you. On one hand, he talks of this season being one of “rejoicing” for him, for being grateful he can play golf for a living; on the other, he explains that he didn’t exactly embrace his elevated post-Masters status.

“Every company you represent . . . they want more of your time,” Watson said after the second round. “Yellow flags. I’ve seen enough of those. I really don’t want to sign too many of those yellow flags. I think I’ve signed every single one since 2012.”

’Tis risky to judge someone until you walk 18 holes in his shoes, but I’m thinking that most of The Great Unwashed would love to see yellow flag after yellow flag for life after somehow winning a Masters.

But Bubba waltzes to the sound of his own harmonica, always has. And that harmonica seems to have a sharp edge on each side, for his method cuts both ways. It just didn’t work last year here, where he was overwhelmed by the attention (“It drains a lot more than you know”) and time constraints, or most of 2013.

“I was still celebrating my green jacket,” he said, prompting laughter, when asked about his dropoff last season. “How many green jackets you got? (More laughter.) If you had one, you would celebrate it for a year or two. (Laughter yet again).”

Watson then splashed on some homespun perspective, saying his “career was complete” after the Augusta success, saying that was dreamy stuff for a kid from Bagdad, Fla., whose father worked construction and his mother two jobs.

“So obviously I was going to have a hangover,” he said. “Never been drunk before, but a hangover from a green jacket.”

It’s worn off now, though. Before making an 11 on one watery hole en route to 83 and withdrawal at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, Watson was playing like a Masters favorite. In three consecutive stroke-play starts, he sandwiched a Northern Trust Open victory, punctuated by a 64-64 weekend at Riviera, with ties for second at Phoenix and Doral. And now this, the blitzing of the field here, highlighted by those five consecutive birdies at Nos. 12-16 – all from close range except the 40-foot twister at 14 that broke about 20 feet.

He says he’s rolling the ball better since lengthening his putter shaft a half inch. He says he’s committing to shots better. He says he changed his approach here by playing just nine practice holes a day. And he says he liked cruising under the radar coming in instead of being squeezed by all corners.

“This year I come in with no media attention, just out there practicing,” Watson said.

But he has everyone’s attention again at a place that tends to suit long-hitting lefthanders who like to fade a golf ball. As for what transpires next, no one knows, not even Watson. The lone certainty is that Bubba Ball figures to entertain.

“It might be horrific,” he said of the weekend, “but at least I have a chance.”