AUGUSTA, Ga. — To feel the pressure of the Masters, there must be people to provide it. Indeed, for the Masters to feel like the Masters, there must be those moments when one roar is trumped by another, a four-of-a-kind suddenly and impossibly outdone by a straight flush. It is what defines spring Sundays at Augusta National Golf Club.
Yet here was Bubba Watson, standing on the 18th tee Sunday, pulling a 4-wood from his bag and hitting a nice, comfortable draw down the center of the fairway. Ho-hum. If he was sweating, it was solely because of the heat. He is perhaps the most dynamic player in golf, yet to win what is annually one of the most harrowing events in all of sports, he closed with five straight pars, hugged his wife and son and slipped easily into his second green jacket in three years.
“Nobody really caught fire,” Watson said.
What an odd thing to say about any Masters, particularly one involving the 35-year-old Watson, who spits out birdies and bogeys by the bunch, a golfing Tilt-a-Whirl. This is to take nothing away from what Watson accomplished Sunday, controlling the entire tournament — his ball, his emotions, his fate — with a final-round 69 that left him 8-under par, three shots better than 20-year-old Jordan Spieth, his playing partner in the final group, and Sweden’s Jonas Blixt, another Masters rookie.
Contrast this with Watson’s first Masters win, which came in 2012 in a playoff over Louis Oosthuizen, when he pulled off a ridiculous shot — a slinging hook off pine straw — with the most intense pressure. What will define this Masters? How about a stat straight from the U.S. Open: The top three finishers combined to make two birdies on the back nine.
“Playing this way was a lot better,” Watson said, “a lot easier.”
It is also a measure of how much easier Watson’s life has become. The week before his first Masters victory, he and his wife, Angie, adopted a 1-month-old boy, Caleb. He nearly skipped the tournament. He then effectively went into a slump that lasted a year-and-a-half — the amount of time it took to figure out how to balance work and family.
On Sunday night, when he made his final par, Angie and Caleb embraced him beside the 18th green. “It’s a lot different situation now than it was back then,” Watson said. All this would seem to make him a more balanced, more mature man.
“He’s gone from like 12-and-a-half to 14,” said Rickie Fowler, Watson’s good friend who finished tied for fifth, six strokes back. “He’s getting there. He’s always going to be a kid at heart.”
To win Sunday, he had to beat a kid. And how odd that the most important stuff came before Watson and Spieth made the turn. Spieth deftly and delicately feathered in a birdie putt from 10 feet above the hole at the par-4 seventh. As he walked to the eighth tee at 8 under, grown men in the gallery thundered to their buddies, “The kid could do it!”
And he could have. When Spieth hit his tee shot at the par-5 eighth, he led by two over Watson, four over Matt Kuchar, five over Blixt, with realistic hopes of becoming the youngest Masters champ ever. But at 8, Watson lashed at his pink-shafted driver, and the ball sailed, all but waving at Spieth’s on the way by. Here came the turn: Spieth took a 3-wood for his approach and was short and right. Watson pulled a 5-iron to cover the 247 yards to the hole — think about that — and it went through the green.
Spieth clipped his ensuing chip as he wanted. “The third shot I really thought was the difference in the day,” said Michael Greller, Spieth’s caddie. “We thought we had hit it long, and it came up short.” Short enough that Spieth three-putted for bogey. When Watson got up and down from over the green for birdie – poof – the lead was gone. They both stood at 7 under.
At the par-4 ninth, Spieth suffered his first hands-on-hips moment. He hit his approach hole-high, then watched Alister MacKenzie, the late Scottish designer of this course, go to work. Spieth’s ball tumbled back off the green, another bogey. Watson rolled in a 14-footer for his second birdie in a row. In two holes, a two-shot deficit became a two-shot cushion.
“It’s a stinger,” Spieth said. “I had it in my hand and could have gone forward with it.”
There were two more moments that, if they didn’t change the tournament, at least helped Watson define it as his. His only birdie on the back side came after a slicing drive that — get this — traveled 366 yards, leaving him with a sand wedge into the par-5 13th. “I’ll never forget it,” Spieth said. At the par-5 15th, Watson appeared to be blocked out to the left, with a pair of huge trees in front of him. He pulled a 6-iron, choked up and punched it through the limbs.
“For him, it’s not that big a deal,” said his caddie, Ted Scott. “. . . I’m like, ‘That’s not a big gap.’ For him, he sees huge gaps.”
That’s part of what Watson has labeled “Bubba Golf,” a brand built on the folly of finding opportunity where others see a jail cell. Bubba Golf, though, has now won two major championships, two Masters. His self-taught, seemingly cartoonish style has made him something of an elite player. And he doesn’t care.
“I just got lucky enough to have got two green jackets,” Watson said. “. . . I’m not trying to play golf for everybody to tell me how great I am or I’m one of the greats of the game. I play golf because I love it. I love the game.”
He loves his life more. This time, as he left the 18th green, he did so with Caleb in his arms, high-fiving the fans on the way by. The Masters might not have felt like the Masters from the outside, but try telling that to Bubba Watson — father, husband, par-making champion — in those moments afterward.