If golf was poker, Bubba Watson would be its wild card.
Now that he has won two Masters tournaments in three years, there is little question that Bubba is among the elite players in the world. Due to his most recent dominant victory at Augusta, he jumped from 12th into the fourth position in the golf world rankings and is second in FedEx Cup points.
Woods may be ranked first in the world, but Bubba is now the highest-rated “active” American golfer. With Tiger sidelined by back surgery and with Phil Mickelson having a subpar season, Bubba has the unique opportunity to shore up that position and perhaps even replace those two prominent figures on the pro tour.
But can we trust that the irrepressible Bubba will continue his pre-eminence and not only win again, but win big at one or more of the three upcoming remaining major tournaments?
We question his stability because of a history of inconsistency in the face of enormous talent. When he won the 2012 Masters, there was something so mercurial about the victory we didn’t really believe it would last.
Sure enough, Bubba was unable to sustain his winning ways, and while he did secure 10 top-25 finishes in the remaining 14 events, he did not win again that year. Nor the following year. He missed the cut at the 2012 U.S. Open and the 2013 PGA Championship and finished in a tie for 50th at the Masters.
We marvel at Bubba’s creativity but wonder about his choices. His penchant for the crazy shot reminds us of Minnesota Fats rather than Ben Hogan. Did he really call that bank shot in the side pocket?
Why the heck did he hit a ball through the trees on the 15th hole at Augusta on Sunday when he was ahead by three strokes and could have—should have—just punched it out and popped it on the green?
He won the 2012 Masters on a fantastic hook shot out of the pine straw while dueling Louis Oosthuizen in a playoff. It was the kind of imaginative and athletic shot we had come to expect from Bubba. The shot turned him into a hero, but there was something almost fluky about it and the subsequent victory.
Until his win at the Northern Trust Open earlier this year, Bubba seemed resigned to a position of also-ran. He was often near the top of the board but never really threatening. He was all over the place except at the winner’s circle.
Yet a guy with this much-natural ability could not be another one-and-done. Bubba’s ability to shape the golf ball, his Herculean power off the tee and his workmanship around the green would seemingly not keep him off the trophy stand for much longer.
This year’s Masters victory has unveiled a new Bubba. While he never lacked confidence, he played Augusta with the prowess and panache of a proven winner. This Bubba was able to self-correct after a wayward Saturday performance that brought him back to the pack; here was a Bubba who could absorb young Jordan Spieth’s early lead on Sunday at Augusta, then speed past him and never look back.
He really won the Masters on Friday with his five straight birdies on the back nine. He played with the confidence of someone who had won here before. And, he didn’t need a miraculous shot to win this time.
Said Luke Donald, his playing partner on Friday:
You can see why he’s had some success around here. He’s hitting (pitching) wedge and sand wedge into a lot of holes when I’m hitting six-iron. It’s an advantage. When he is controlling the ball the way he is right now, it’s going to be tough to catch him.
It looks like Tiger will not play in the U.S. Open at Pinehurst, which will leave the door open for Bubba.
In order to win at Pinehurst, Bubba may have to dial down his never-ending desire to power the ball down the fairway. That’s because the traditional U.S. Open fairway is narrow and the surrounding rough is fraught with danger.
Bubba, whose 305-yard average leads the PGA Tour in distance off the tee, can decimate the competition with his length. But, it is accuracy that wins the U.S. Open and Bubba ranks 134th in that category.
Bubba’s shoot-from-the-hip style doesn’t seem to line up well on a course where strategic planning outweighs gargantuan drives. The reward just doesn’t match the risk.
In that way, Bubba’s aggressive style reminds us of Mickelson, who eventually tucked away his driver in order to manage the constraints of the U.S. Open. It almost paid off for Lefty last year when he scored his sixth runner-up at the event.
Bubba is not that kind of player yet. He may be among the favorites when the Open rolls around in June, but a win doesn’t seem as likely as at the Open Championship, which will be played at Royal Liverpool in mid-July.
If his pink driver is in tune, he can lay waste to a British Open course. With his length, he can bound the ball down the wide-open fairways and let it roll into place. He can miss in the right places and still be fine.
Think about his 366-yard drive on the 15th hole at Augusta. That is just the kind of mind-blowing power that will separate Bubba from his peers.
If he can sustain the consistency with his irons that placed him ninth in greens in regulation at the Masters, he has a very good chance of winning the Open Championship. Of course, Hoylake is a seaside track whose winds could wreak havoc with Bubba’s high-arcing drives. But Bubba’s ability to shape shots could ultimately help him in his quest for the Claret Jug.
Following the Open Championship, the PGA Championship will be played at the 7,195-yard Valhalla Golf Club in Kentucky. That may seem long to some, but to Bubba it’s just another pitch-and-putt.
The Jack Nicklaus-designed course is known for its large greens, each of which is guarded by a variety of hazards, including bunkers, water, grassy hollows and large swatches of lush bluegrass rough.
In order to conquer Valhalla, Bubba will have to combine his length with creative shot-making. To make things worse, the massive undulating greens require exacting placement.
Who knows? By that time, he could be in line for his third or fourth major title of the year. A grand slam for Bubba? For a guy who is self-taught, he has become increasingly more adept at shot-making, as illustrated by his ability to hits greens in regulation.
He now has the game to go with his guile.
Perhaps surprisingly, he has become adept at hitting greens in regulation. He hit 50 of 72 greens at Augusta, which tied him for fifth place. That stat was obviously key in providing him opportunities for his winning effort.
The question now is: Can Bubba sustain his championship form going forward, or will he succumb to his current success and fade from the top of upcoming leaderboards, as he did in 2012?
This was supposed to be Tiger’s year to finally win that 15th major. Pinehurst, Royal Liverpool and Valhalla were courses where he had comfort and success. But that is looking less likely as time goes by and Tiger deals with age and injury.
Once again, Bubba has a chance to do the unthinkable. Can he remain focused and actually pull off a win at Pinehurst, Hoylake and/or Valhalla?