Saturday 18 November 2017

No sob stories for Watson this time

Defending champ relaxed after title hopes slip away writes Oliver Brown

Bubba Watson has been the embodiment of diplomacy this week
Bubba Watson has been the embodiment of diplomacy this week
Watson’s personalised club cover

Oliver Brown

All that was missing from Bubba Watson's Masters was the crying. He wept copiously in 2012, when he seized a maiden Green Jacket just days after meeting his adopted son, Caleb, for the first time.

He sobbed just as profusely upon winning a second 12 months ago, as Caleb, then two, waddled out on to the 18th green for a hug.

There is no more unashamedly lachrymose man in golf. It is as if Watson - who perfected his soppy shtick by announcing in his first-victory press conference that he was "just Bubba from Bagdad, Florida" - translates all the mawkishness of Augusta's annual par-three contest into human form.

Except Watson strode out for the Masters last night fully mindful that his golden chance of becoming the only man besides Jack Nicklaus to win three titles in four years here had gone. Even his caddie, Ted Scott, sounded nostalgic, tweeting a picture of himself wearing a white boiler suit emblazoned with a green No 1, traditional Augusta garb for the defending champion's bag-man. It would, Scott reflected, be the last time for a while.

"You can say it, I'm out of it," said Watson, heading out for his round in the knowledge that a scruffy third-round 73 had sunk all hope. "But I've got two of them, so I'll be able to sleep OK."

Sometimes, a player's insistence that being a father renders his day job irrelevant comes across as nothing more than folksy affectation. With Watson, though, one can tell that he means it. He marked Masters week by conducting a lengthy interview with Sports Illustrated that dwelt almost exclusively upon his parenting. It included such gems of homespun wisdomas: "Being a dad has helped me to become a better man, a softer man. I know that my son is watching."

Watson and his Canadian wife Angie, a former basketball player, have recently added to their number again by adopting a daughter, Dakota. But if Bubba's self-improvement drive is at least partially geared towards his children, then it is also designed to improve his popularity standings on tour.

In a tongue-in-cheek poll by ESPN this month, where more than 100 players were asked anonymously to say which colleague they would be least likely to defend in a fight in the car park, 23 named Watson.

It is a sportsman's habit to stonewall any questions about such fripperies, but there is a sense that he was genuinely hurt. "I've had some mess-ups on tour, and I'm trying to get better," he said. "I'm glad that people call me out, because it's the only way I can improve."

It is no coincidence, then, that Watson has been the embodiment of diplomacy this week. He turned up at 7am sharp on Thursday to observe the ceremonial tee-shots of Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player.

When an emotional Ben Crenshaw signed off his 44th and last Masters on Friday, with a score of 32 under par, Watson was one of the first people beside the clubhouse to embrace him. He has treated the responsibilities invested in him as the holder of the Green Jackets like sacred duties.

Watson has taken the jacket itself on a tour of elementary schools, explaining that it was his job "to inspire, whatever your dreams are - whether it is to become Masters champion or President of the United States". This week he is travelling to play in China for the second time in six months, as he seeks to escape his caricature as a Yank philistine who once described the Louvre as "that building beginning with L".

It has been a tournament in which the received image of Bubba has been redefined. The one element of his armoury to have suffered has been his golf. Even Rory McIlroy had identified Watson as the early favourite for a hat-trick of Masters wins, understanding that the left-handers supreme power and ability to dominate a dog-leg par-five such as the 13th with his shape of shot would be formidable assets.

But Watson's performance has not evolved as most envisaged. A triple-bogey seven at the first on Friday encapsulated his mercurial nature, and he offered little threat of a late Sunday flourish, drifting out to level par after eight holes last night.

"It's about preparation for next time, whenever that may be," he said. "You never know what situations you're going to have, what emotions you're likely to have. I'm preparing for next year here."

Watson had to accept the notion that this time, Angie, Caleb and Dakota would not be engulfing him on the 18th. But he could be comforted, after the shock of finding out what his contemporaries truly thought of him, that his public relations offensive had worked wonders. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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