For all the hype that two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson gets for his booming tee shots and brilliant shot making, his vastly improved short game is what has him playing the best golf of his career.
As strong as Watson has been at Augusta National in winning the green jacket in two of the past three years, his progression as a putter and around the greens suggests he is positioned for further greatness at the other three major championships.
That has always been the knock on the marvel that is "Bubba Golf." Watson can work the ball both ways and attempt shots most golfers couldn't even dream up, much less execute.
ESPN's Justin Ray noted how Watson was able to use his power to his advantage in an eerily similar fashion to when he won his first Masters:
Bubba Watson at 2012 Masters: -8 on Par 5's, 9 bogeys all week. At 2014 Masters: -8 on Par 5's, 9 bogeys all week.— Justin Ray (@JRayESPNGolf) April 13, 2014
What has held him back in the past have been nervy chips and a putting stroke that lacks conviction.
It's difficult to determine if he's changed anything in terms of practice or preparation, but Watson has elevated his play in those all-important scoring areas in a big way.
Golf.com reported what Watson had to say about his Masters triumph and how he was in relative disbelief:
How did you do it Bubba? "I really don't know." #Masters— Golf.com (@si_golf) April 13, 2014
Watson better start believing he's truly among the world's elite golfers, as he's risen to fourth in the Official World Golf Ranking.
Check out where he's ranked among his peers in recent seasons in some key short-game statistics, courtesy of PGATour.com:
|Statistic||2011 (Rank)||2012 (Rank)||2013 (Rank)||2013-14 (Rank)|
|Total Putting||280.4 (154th)||279.3 (154th)||222.2 (116th)||143.3 (33rd)|
|Scrambling||50.82% (184th)||56.58% (110th)||54.48% (150th)||64.33% (12th)|
|3-Putt Avoidance||3.66% (154th)||2.69% (51st)||3.42% (114th)||1.72% (9th)|
|Putting from 15-25'||13.76% (156th)||10.70% (187th)||11.54% (164th)||24.53% (1st)|
So there is a clear trend here. In the 2013-14 season, Watson has already matched his previous best of two victories in one year from 2011. In the process, he is trending in a drastically different direction on the shots that require the most touch.
The range from 15 to 25 feet is often where a lot of momentous par-saving putts or realistic birdie opportunities come from. While Watson continues to rank near the top in greens in regulation thanks to the short clubs he often has for approach shots, it's what he's doing when his misses the surface that's been most notable.
After ranking deep in the 100s in scrambling for the past three seasons, Watson is now 12th in getting it up and down regardless of the situation. In fact, he is first on tour, with a 70 percent success rate (21-of-30), in scrambling from the rough.
What can often kill a strong round is the dreaded three-putt—especially when the golfer walks to the green expecting no worse than par. Watson has shaken off his susceptibility to this unenviable phenomenon and started sinking more of his second putts, helping him to second place in scoring average at 69.583.
Watson may always go down as a legendarily long player. His Masters final-round playing partner, Jordan Spieth, won't soon forget the shot he hit on the par-five 13th, per Golf Channel's Kelly Tilghman:
"His drive on 13 I'll never forget" - Jordan Spieth on Bubba Watson's 366 yd tee shot— Kelly Tilghman (@KellyTilghmanGC) April 14, 2014
In looking toward the future, though, it appears that Watson—what with his ability to work the ball at will and the progress in his short game—should be able to contend anywhere.
He's proven the ability to make birdies in bunches, but with this newly discovered touch on and around the greens, Watson has the game to thrive even when par is the ultimate objective. Such should be the case in the 2014 U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2. Michael Campbell won at the testing venue in 2005 with a 72-hole score of level par, and Payne Stewart outdueled Phil Mickelson in 1999 and was one under overall.
When will Bubba Watson win another major?
The PGA Championship tends to be a birdie fest, and Watson made a playoff in that tournament in 2010 to Martin Kaymer, who went on to become No. 1 in the world. Valhalla plays host this year, where Tiger Woods shot 18 under par to reign supreme in 2000.
After missing his first two cuts at the Open Championship, Watson has finished in the top 30 in each of the last three years. The course rotation lands on Royal Liverpool this year, where Woods lit it up at 18 under par again.
The rest of this year's majors tend to cater to Watson's attacking, aggressive style as it is. Now that he has his short game in order, don't be surprised if he wins a second leg of the Grand Slam before the season is over.