AUGUSTA, GA. – During practice rounds at The Masters, competitors hit shots on the 16th hole, then carry irons to the edge of the pond in front of the tee box and attempt to skip golf balls across the water and onto the green, creating the loudest cheers on the quietest days of the week.
If the defending Masters champion brought his off-course persona onto the pristine fairways of Augusta National, he wouldn’t settle for sending a ball across the pond. He’d be driving one over in his hovercraft.
This week, Bubba Watson will try to become the fourth player ever to repeat as Masters champion. He’s already the most unusual Masters champion, a flamboyant player and self-promoter whose nickname is “Freak Show,” who reveals his golfing genius by behaving in ways, and pulling off shots, that would make most touring pros blanch.
Watson is the prideful Southern boy who owns a replica of the General Lee from “The Dukes of Hazzard” and once drove a lime-green Lamborghini, wields a pink driver, employs an ungainly homemade lefthanded swing, and uses a hovercraft for a golf cart. He’s also the rare male golfer who publicly argued that Augusta National should accept female members and who cries in public anytime he talks about his family.
He didn’t make it through a news conference Tuesday without crying, and he hasn’t been able to make it through a practice round this week without a fan or fellow golfer referencing the spot in the woods where he executed perhaps the most creative sand-wedge escape shot in golf history.
During a sudden-death playoff with Louis Oosthuizen, Watson hooked his drive well down the hill on No. 10. The ball came to rest on pine straw in the woods, with the ball above his feet. Even most of the magicians who play golf for a living would have punched out into the fairway. Watson took a 52-degree sand wedge and made a violent swipe at the ball, hitting a 135-yard hook that made something like a 90-degree turn, bit and spun to within 10 feet of the pin.
It was like watching a quarterback throw a pass around a building and into a mailbox. All week, fans and fellow pros have sought out the spot, trying to envision the shot, the way movie buffs might visit a set and imagine Star Wars special effects.
Sunday, Watson was playing 18 holes with his wife when he saw a few people looking for the site of his greatest shot. Turns out it was legendary golfer Billy Casper and his son.
Monday, Padraig Harrington, a righthander, took a lefthanded stance at the spot, trying to imagine pulling it off. Then he suggested there should be a plaque there with Bubba’s name on it.
“Well, who wouldn’t want to see a plaque that says ‘Bubba’ in the middle of the pine straw?’ ” Watson said.
When Watson first became a known personality on the PGA Tour, he was known for expensive toys and childish shenanigans. During majors, he and his caddie would rent a house and race scooters, play Nerf basketball and video games like teenagers avoiding homework.
Now the big kid has a little kid. He and his wife, Angela, adopted Caleb shortly before Bubba won the Masters last year. Watson used to cry whenever someone mentioned his late father. Now he can’t bring up Caleb without covering his face.
Tuesday, Watson nodded to the Augusta National member sitting next to him in the news conference and said, “My man right here, last year, he drove me from 10 to Butler Cabin and I said, ‘Is this my green jacket?’ ” Watson said. “I’ll probably cry again, but he said, ‘Yeah, that’s your green jacket that you’re taking home.’ ”
Watson had to pause. “Out of respect, out of honor for Augusta National, as one of the greatest clubs we have, as one of the greatest tournaments, out of respect for them, I didn’t do any of my funny antics that I normally would do,” he said. “Only thing I did was wrap Caleb up in it.”
Jim Souhan can been heard weekdays at noon and Sundays from 10-noon on 1500 ESPN. His Twitter name is @SouhanStrib. • email@example.com