AUGUSTA, Ga. – Bubba Watson held a three-shot lead when he sliced his drive behind the trees protecting the left side of the 15th fairway at Augusta National. Play it safe, and he’d become the second player ever to win the Masters twice in his first six tries.
Most players would have chipped to the fairway. Watson grabbed a 6-iron, punched a shot through the branches, knocked it 200 yards and over the back of the green, inviting but avoiding disaster. On the CBS broadcast, golfing wit David Feherty gasped and said, quite serious for once, “He’s lost his marbles.”
After Watson cruised to a three-shot victory Sunday, Watson’s caddie, Ted Scott, was asked to explain his boss’ gambling style.
“That’s Bubba golf,” he said.
It’s a brand. It’s a style. It’s an emotion. It’s evocative of a boyhood in a small, southern town. And it’s dangerously close to becoming as synonymous with the Masters as blooming azaleas, pimiento cheese sandwiches, ceremonial tee shots and green jackets.
Before Watson won Sunday, only Arnold Palmer had won two Masters in six tries. The victory made Watson one of only nine players ever to win two Masters in three years. He became the 17th player ever to win multiple Masters. The rest of them are in the World Golf Hall of Fame.
Most majors require straight driving and damage control. Watson, born in Bagdad, Fla., to a working-class family, is geographically and spiritually wedded to Augusta National, the rare major site that rewards mammoth and sometimes ill-directed drives.
Sunday, Watson clipped trees with his drives on the third and 13th holes, and hit behind trees on 15 and 17, yet made only two bogeys while shooting 69. He was the only player on the morning leaderboard to shoot in the 60s.
On the par-5 13th, he hit a high, massive slice that knocked down a few leaves — and landed 366 yards away. He hit a 56-degree sand wedge 140 yards to the green.
Augusta National planted trees to “Tiger-proof’’ the course after Tiger Woods obliterated it. The club would have to borrow a few thousand redwoods to keep the hillbilly head cover on Watson’s driver.
“It’s overwhelming,’’ Watson said. “A small-town guy named Bubba now has two green jackets. It’s pretty cool.”
He started and ended the week embracing kids on golf courses. The previous Sunday, Watson showed up for Augusta National’s first Drive, Chip and Putt contest for junior golfers. Right after donning his second green jacket on Sunday, Watson thanked Augusta National for rewarding young golfers.
A week after he shook the hand of each entrant in the Drive, Chip and Putt contest, Watson walked off the 18th green and picked up his son, Caleb. He and his wife, Angie, adopted Caleb shortly before the 2013 Masters. Watson said the emotions of that adoption, combined with being flustered by the duties of a defending champion, kept him from playing competitively in the 2013 Masters and for much of the season.
This winter, stung by his failures, he rededicated himself, even if dedication means something different to Watson than many athletes. He began cutting 30 minutes here, an hour there, to practice, even on days he had dedicated to Caleb.
So on Sunday when Watson went on his inevitable post-win crying jag, he was holding Caleb and embracing Angie. “Yeah, I’m going to cry,’’ he said. “Because, why me? Why Bubba Watson from Bagdad, Florida? Why is he winning? That’s why I’m always going to cry. I’ll probably cry again tonight sometime, just thinking about it.”
There were probably others crying in Augusta on Sunday night — the Augusta National employees who expect players to hit long irons into par-5s, and have to watch Watson hitting a wedge on his second shot to the 13th.
“He’s a freak show, man,’’ Scott said. “I mean, I can’t describe it any other way.’’
Bubba Golf means taking an unconventional swing, hitting the ball unimaginable distances, and a guy who has never taken a golf lesson joining the immortals who have won multiple green jackets.
Next time, Bubba might ask if they have something in an overall.
Jim Souhan can be heard weekdays at noon and Sundays from 10 to noon on 1500 ESPN. His Twitter name is @SouhanStrib. firstname.lastname@example.org