AUGUSTA, GA. – Bubba Watson has never been drunk but just recently got through a hangover that lasted a year-and-a-half. Losing, in golf, can be a drag, but it is most frequently done in anonymity, at the back of the pack. Winning brings exhilaration, the confidence that comes with accomplishment. But for the wrong soul, it can become a downright burden.
Two years ago this weekend, Watson stood on the 10th green at Augusta National Golf Club and, in fading light, sobbed for all the world to see. He won the Masters in a playoff. Only now is he recovering.
“I didn’t know how to handle it the best way,” Watson said Friday, “and so I didn’t play my best golf last year.”
His best golf is here again, though, and it is unlike any other version in the game. His best golf usually features otherworldly stuff — take, say, the five straight birdies he made Friday. And it all helped him build a second-round 68 that put him in the Masters lead, 7 under par, three shots clear of 42-year-old Australian John Senden, another shot better than a group that includes defending champion Adam Scott and 20-year-old American Jordan Spieth.
So at the midway point of the Masters, we have a leading man. Four-time champ Tiger Woods is at home, out after back surgery. Three-time champ Phil Mickelson is headed there, too, missing the cut for the first time in 17 years following disastrous rounds of 76 and 73 .
So turn to Bubba — that’s what the galleries here call him, whether in whispers or bellows. Marvel at the way he lashes at the ball before sending it into the stratosphere, somehow keeping his shirt buttoned to the chin. And then consider the weight of winning.
“I do everything my way,” Watson said. “I learned the game my way. I figured it out 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.”
Where he is today is light years from where he was at the 2013 Masters. The entire week — no, really, the entire year — had been too much for him. He opened with 75, closed with 77, and headed into a summer of irrelevance. His oft-told story of growing up in the Florida panhandle with a father working construction and a mother who worked two jobs fell to the background, just as he did. He finished in the top 10 once in his next 15 tournaments. When it came time to pick the Presidents Cup team, he wasn’t on it. Once up to fourth in the world rankings, he slid to 30th.
There were plenty of factors involved in all this, not the least of which is Watson’s scatter-brained nature, an admitted struggle with one of the most essential elements of golf: focus. But just before his Masters victory, he and his wife Angie adopted a baby boy, Caleb. In so many ways, that steadied him.
“If he shoots 80 or 800, he’s still going to go home to play T-ball with Caleb in the back yard,” Angie Watson said Friday. “I think it helps.”
But he also had to learn a new skill set, more difficult than an on-demand fade: Fathering.
“Learning to be a good dad, learning to be a better husband, it takes time on you,” Watson said. “It takes energy. And then learning how to refocus, re-practice, get back to the level that I think I should be at.”
When he was watching the Presidents Cup, watching a team he figured to be on compete without him, he altered things. He learned how to practice more efficiently, he said. And from the get-go this year, he has been infinitely better. His past four tournaments have all featured top-10 finishes, with two ties for second and a victory.
That return to form should have put him among the favorites here. Yet in the days before the Masters began, he hardly created a ripple. That suited him just fine. He attended his first champions dinner when he wasn’t the honoree. Also fine. “I got to be just a bystander,” he said.
When play began, he was a bystander no more. His opening 69 was clean as could be, with no bogeys. The 68 Friday featured a snaking, 40-foot birdie putt at the par-4 14th — the midpoint of his run of five straight birdies that began at 12 and ended at 16.
And along the way, he showed why he’s so different from every other player out here. At the 13th, a par 5 of 510 yards, he hit 7-iron for his second shot. At 15, a par 5 that stretches 530, he hit 5-iron. He hit one 9-iron here 186 yards, another 178 yards, a third around 150. He plays with such feel and instinct that he can almost hit any shot with any club.
“Obviously, hitting wedge and sand wedge into a lot of holes, and I’m hitting 6-iron, it’s a big advantage,” said Luke Donald, the former world No. 1 who played with Watson over the first two rounds. “And he spins his irons a tremendous amount, with the greens only getting firmer and firmer. So when he’s controlling his ball as well as he is right now, it’s going to be tough to catch him if he keeps playing like that.”
As he stood on the 18th green Friday, en route to a closing bogey that took only a bit of the shine off his day, the group of Gary Woodland, Angel Cabrera and Ian Poulter walked by, making its way from the ninth green to the 10th tee. Each man stole a look through the gallery, a look down toward Watson. The hangover has ended, and whatever happens over the weekend, this Masters has a man worth watching.