Masters 2012: Bubba Watson, with one shot, hooks his way into golf folklore

Anyone else who walked down the 10th fairway at Augusta National Sunday evening, with the Masters still to be decided, would have seen disaster. Bubba Watson saw only an opening. His ball sat on pine straw, beyond the gallery to the right of the fairway, pines looming over it. Jail.

Watson, though, plays a Gumby-like version of golf, able to stretch shots around corners that seem to be square, creating openings where others see walls. “Bubba Golf,” he calls it. Its marketing slogan: If I have a swing, I’ve got a shot. It could be in a Tuesday practice round. It could be in a playoff at the Masters, with South Africa’s Louis Oosthuizen — a beautifully straight striker of the ball — looming at the edge of the fairway.

“I want to hit the incredible shot,” Watson said. “Who doesn’t?”

So he did, and he won the Masters because of it. Before he arrived at his ball, he identified a path that others would deem preposterous. He pulled a wedge, and lashed at the ball, keeping it under the limbs, perhaps 15 feet off the ground, watching it rise when it reached the fairway. It then bent to the right, a swing of perhaps 40 yards, and settled on the green. It set up a ludicrous par that was enough to beat Oosthuizen, who himself arrived in the playoff because of his own bit of craziness — a double-eagle 2 at the par-5 second — and finished another wild Sunday at the Masters with Watson’s first major championship.

“I’ve never had a dream go this far,” Watson said.

Which would seem odd, given how Watson can envision almost any golf shot from any position. Previously long on talent but short on temper, his Masters victory featured four straight birdies on the back nine. It featured his pink driver, one he uses to outright attack the ball, blasting it 325 yards and further in any direction. And it featured tears, so many tears, because Watson is emotional by nature, and he has much in his life about which to be emotional.

“Golf is not my everything,” he said.

More on that later, because for five hours Sunday, golf dominated. Oosthuizen, the 2010 British Open champ, shook up this Easter Sunday with his historic shot — a 4-iron from 235 yards at the second that ran across the green, the fourth albatross in Masters history, the first at No. 2. With 54-hole leader Peter Hanson making bogey at the first, Oosthuizen was suddenly in the lead, 10 under.

“You’ve got to keep your emotions in place,” he said, “because you think, ‘This is it. This is going to happen.’ ”

Yet the pick at the time still would have been Phil Mickelson, the three-time Masters champ who entered Sunday trailing only Hanson by one. He came to the par-3 fourth two behind Oosthuizen. He took aim left of the flag. The ball sailed further left. With a clang off the railing of the grandstand, Mickelson’s Masters was all but lost.

“If it goes into people and stops right there, no problem,” Mickelson said. “If it goes into the grandstand, no problem.”

Rather, it ricocheted back into the woods. What followed was nothing short of a mess: two swipes at it right-handed that advanced the ball only nominally, his fourth shot flopped into a greenside bunker, and an up-and-down for triple bogey that put Mickelson four shots back. The three times he won from the final group, he shot 69, 69 and 67. Sunday, 70 would have put him in the playoff. He shot 72.

“I had my chances,” Mickelson said. “I just couldn’t quite get it done.”

So it was left to others. When Watson bogeyed the fickle par-3 12th, he sat two behind Oosthuizen. From there, he went on the kind of tear that wins Masters — a two-putt birdie at the par-5 13th, an approach to five feet at 14, an absurdly long drive at 15 that set up another two-putt birdie, and the best tee shot he could hope for at the par-3 16th, one that trickled down the slope, four feet below the hole. That dusted characters such as Matt Kuchar, whose brilliant eagle at 15 tied him with Oosthuizen at 9 under, but whose poor tee shot at 16 led to a bogey. He was not heard from again.

The playoff came because of Oosthuizen’s gutsy two-putt par at 18. On the first extra hole, Oosthuizen stroked a 20-foot birdie putt that looked dead center. “I thought it was in,” he said. Yet it stayed a hair right. Watson then had 10 feet to win the Masters. It rolled left.

Time for Bubba Golf. Watson grew up in the Florida panhandle town of Bagdad, and he routinely used plastic clubs to flail at balls around his house. One way, he would shape them right-to-left. The other way, he’d shape them left-to-right. Thus was born the phrase he first told his caddie, Ted Scott, six years ago. “If I have a swing, I’ve got a shot.” Walking to the errant drive, Scott repeated that to Watson.

There were, though, other forces at work. Watson and his wife Angie had worked four years to adopt a baby. Three weeks earlier, after a slew of rejections, they were granted a son. Even before the Masters began, Watson could scarcely talk about young Caleb without breaking down. Angie, a fixture with her husband on tour, remained in Florida this week, the family apart.

So when Watson pulled off his shot — “It looked like a curveball,” Oosthuizen said, and it settled maybe 15 feet short of the hole — Angie and Caleb were in his thoughts. When Oosthuizen sent his chip over the back of the green, then missed his par putt, they were in his thoughts.

And when he tapped in for his par, the par that gave him the Masters, he sobbed immediately, and hard. Maybe some day, Bubba Watson will be able to teach his son that where others see peril, some can find opportunity. That’s what dad did, and it made him the 2012 Masters champion.

Barry Svrluga, a former Nationals and Redskins beat reporter, is the national baseball writer for The Washington Post.
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