ORLANDO – Bubba Watson lived just a short drive away from Bay Hill Golf Club and Lodge while taking up residence in nearby Windermere, Fla.
He was a member and would stop by every once in a while to see “Mr. Palmer.”
Watson no longer lives in Orlando, but he held on to his Bay Hill membership with family in mind.
“I love being able to come here when my kids want to go to Disney, and I can come here and hit some balls,” Watson said.
He’ll have even more incentive to return with a few more days like Thursday.
Watson shot 4-under 68 in Round 1 of the Arnold Palmer Invitational, the lowest opening-round score of his career at Bay Hill. He cruised through the back nine with a 3-under 33 on a day many players struggled to navigate the thick rough and slick greens.
It’s all about the driver with Watson, but his iron game helped him cruise to T-3 on the leaderboard alongside Phil Mickelson, Graeme McDowell, Patrick Rodgers and Billy Horschel.
Watson stuck his approach to six feet and made birdie at the par-4 10th hole, and he nearly jarred his tee shot at the 215-yard, par-3 14th. That led to a tap-in birdie from two feet and a strong start for the big lefty.
“This golf course – even though it’s long and especially when they have added some length this year – you’ve got to play it a certain way,” Watson said. “And I get bored hitting irons off the tee so I try to hit driver a lot, which obviously backfires sometimes and sometimes it’s good.”
Safe to say, it’s been more than good throughout his career and 18 rounds in 2019. He currently leads the Tour with an average driving distance of 318.5 yards and he’s second in strokes gained off-the-tee, despite ranking 129th in driving accuracy.
Watson also switched to a longer putter recently and feels great on the greens – he only had 24 putts Thursday, tied for fewest in the field.
“I’m getting used to it,” Watson said. “I putted good the last couple weeks. Obviously, whatever putter you’re using, you get nervous out there. We’re all professionals, we all get nervous. We want to make them.”
A 12-time winner on Tour, including three last season, Watson bounced back from a slow start in Hawaii with a T-4 finish at the Waste Management Phoenix Open. He was also T-15 the following week at Riviera. With his performance Thursday, Watson is proving last year’s three-win season might not have been an anomaly for the 40-year-old.
Watson is set to tee off with Pat Perez and Brian Harman at 7:20 a.m. Friday in Round 2, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a more colorful group of characters on the course. The conversations are just a little different these days, with Perez becoming a dad and welcoming a daughter to the world last fall. Harman has a 2-year-old daughter as well, and Watson’s two kids are well-known to all who follow him on social media.
“We’re having fun, we love the game of golf, but we’re talking about all the other stuff,” Watson said. “Harman’s not quite a new dad, but Pat is, so it’s interesting talking to them and them realizing there’s other parts of the world and not just golf.”
Watson is a future Hall-of-Famer and the next three days won’t make or break his career by a long shot. But he’s in position to chase victory No. 13 this week at one of his home courses.
“We’re moving in the right direction,” Watson said. “It’s a long year. All it takes is one win and we can forget about everything else.”