Monday 22 January 2018

Bubba Watson gives free rein to his outrageous genius

Bubba Watson celebrates after a birdie on the 14th green during the second round of the Masters.
Bubba Watson celebrates after a birdie on the 14th green during the second round of the Masters.


At first there was a curious serenity about Bubba Watson, as if the shouts of “Bubba dawg!” and “Bubba golf!” were an unwelcome reminder of his Dukes of Hazard fixation or his new bulletproof truck.

Watson, the lachrymose 2012 Masters champion, was being quite the Augusta statesman.

There was a reason, he explained, after a sensational second round of 68, why he was playing the showman this time round. “Celebrating” the green jacket of two years ago wrecked his focus. Now he has it back. “When I made the [birdie] putt on 14, I gave a wave to the crowd and everything, but I just tried to make it no big deal,” he said. “ That’s what I have to do.”

No more giddiness, no more bowing to sponsors, no more entourage.

Five consecutive birdies at 12, 13, 14, 15 and 16 brought a flush and a twitch to his features until a bogey at the 18th delivered a small late reality check. A one-hit wonder? Not Bubba. Behold his genius. He swept a sweet iron shot from the 16th tee and jammed the shaft between his teeth.

He was like an overactive boy, looking for ways to burn off his excitement.

With two fine rounds behind him, he spoke vividly about the corrosive effects of life-changing wins. “You’ve got to think about where I’ve come from, my mom having two jobs to pay for my golf, my dad working in construction,” he said. “So yeah, obviously I was going to [have a] hangover. Never been drunk before, but a hangover from the green jacket.

“You know, I do everything my way. I learnt the game my way. So it just takes me a little bit longer with the mental focus and drive to get back to where I am today.”

The big jolt came last year when he “looked at the FedExCup [rankings] and how bad it was. When I looked at the team event, the Presidents Cup last year. When the team event was going on and I wasn’t there, you know, all those things hit you”.

Yet now the Masters has found its spark, its maverick. Seven birdies in a row is the Augusta record, held jointly by Tiger Woods, the missing magnet of this tournament. If we needed someone to warm up a course ravaged by last month’s ice storm, Watson brought the flame. It was thrilling and audacious and was one in the eye for those who look down on his untutored brand of golf.

For only the second time in 81 major championship rounds, he went round bogey-free on Thursday: the only one of the 97 players to do so. Watching him capitalise on that good beginning, in a group with Luke Donald and Sergio Garcia, the mind went back to that April day two years ago when he was renamed ‘Blubba Watson’ after watering Georgia with his tears.

He cried on the final play-off hole, in interviews and in the Butler Cabin where the decorum required is more or less at the level of the Oval Office.

With his mullet and pink driver, his outrageous southpaw shots, he blew a hole not only in the Augusta tradition of emotional restraint but the idea that golfers need lessons to master this infernal art. Watson has not received a single one.

Last year brought a second-album downturn, with a joint-50th place finish here. His victory in this year’s Northern Trust Open was his first on the PGA Tour for 41 tournaments. But already we see he is no cartoon good ’ole boy who struck gold in a Masters play-off.

Anyone who fails to be astonished by his shot-making is watching the wrong sport. Every time he swings a club a coaching manual becomes confetti.

Against Louis Oosthuizen in 2012, he played one of the most audacious recovery shots ever seen in golf. His drive from the second play-off hole flew 343 yards into trees. His solution was a 40-yard wedge hook that defied the laws of geometry. Trees and TV camera gantries seemed to melt away as the ball took its banana flight-path.

This is no college or country club identikit golfer. On the circuit they debate how much of his eccentricity is genuine. But who buys the original General Lee Dodge Charger – the one gunned around by Bo and Luke Duke – as a cosmetic act?

On YouTube, Watson introduces you to his new bulletproof people carrier. “Who hasn’t wanted a bulletproof truck?” he asks. Handy for the school run. The Food Raptor features camouflage (“camo”) print, lime green interior and four distinctive horn sounds, including, you guessed it, the “legendary General Lee jingle.”

Watson’s other mark on American society is as an advocate for adoption. He won the Masters two weeks after he and his wife, Angie, adopted a baby boy.

Since then he has thrown himself into the cause. He is described in a story on his website as: “Bubba Watson. Respected golfer, beloved husband, adopted father and committed Christian.” Golf, the piece goes on, offers an opportunity to “live out his faith, stewart [sic] his gift, love his wife Angie and be an example to his son Caleb.”

“C’mon Bubba, baby” one patron called out at the first. But the first nine holes were played out quietly. Maybe the masses find him a bit too unusual to fully get behind. Perhaps they lean instinctively to the other famous lefty in this Masters field: Phil Mickelson, the safe choice.

But forget safe now. Watson’s convention-defying brilliance was just what this tournament needed as two European Ryder Cup adversaries toiled in his wake. ‘Bubba golf’ is back. The General Lee honks its horn at sceptics.

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