Bubba Watson is beginning to look like a one-dimensional player whose game is made for the Masters but not much else when it comes to the majors.
Based on how he played the last three majors of the year, missing two cuts and way out of the mix in the third, the ball-bashing Watson from Bagdad, Florida, seems to lose his magic outside the confines of Augusta.
While Rory McIlroy has been busy destroying all major venues, Watson has had issues keeping his ball in play and his head on straight when he's outside of Georgia.
It is obviously not the end of the world to play your best at professional golf’s biggest event, but it says a lot about Watson's game and style that he cannot seem to perform on par, or under it, at the other majors.
Since he won the Masters in April, Watson has put up one score equal to his obvious talent, a third-place finish at the Memorial. From there, it has been pretty much downhill, with scores of 31st or worse in four events, a tie for 16th at the Greenbrier and two missed cuts.
Of special note are his missed cuts, which occurred at the U.S. Open and The Open Championship. While he made the cut at the PGA Championship, he finished in a dismal tie for 65th place.
Don't get me wrong. He is having a fine year overall, earning $5,185,361, winning two titles and placing in the top 10 seven times. His success has led him to third place in the FedEx Cup standings and eighth in the world. He will be an important part of the U.S. Ryder Cup team.
So why hasn't Watson performed better at other majors?
Let’s examine Watson’s performances at the majors.
This year’s victory was his second at Augusta in three years. Each time, he simply overpowered the course. Both times, he finished off his competition in glorious style, shooting a 69 while in perfect control of his driving and shot-making.
This year, he didn't need a shot out of the trees that curved and curved until it rolled onto the green to win. Like a pool player sizing up a long carom around two balls, it was a shot that only the crafty lefty could have imagined.
Yet when you can drive a ball 366 yards and turn a hard par into an easy birdie, as he did on the 13th hole this year, you shouldn’t really need those types of shots.
"His drive on 13 I'll never forget," said Jordan Spieth, who came a lonely second behind Watson.
Ever the aggressor on the course, Watson went for the green on the 15th from out of the woods, while a more rational and conservative player would have laid up. It was a questionable move but in keeping with his unbridled approach to the game.
The reason Watson performs well at Augusta is that he takes the difficulty out of those gut-wrenching approach shots. By driving the ball so far down the fairway, he ends up lofting short irons onto the green, which increases his chances of getting close to the pin and staying on the small, undulating greens.
This is not dissimilar to the way Rory hits the ball now or the way Tiger used to destroy Augusta in his prime.
Augusta is always the same course, and it plays right into Watson’s big hands.
Watson is now among 17 players who have won the Masters multiple times, and there is really no reason to believe he cannot do it again.
The U.S. Open
The U.S. Open requires supreme accuracy off the tee, excellent shot-making, masterful course strategy and a repetitive, confident putting stroke from someone with a cool, Zen-like approach on the green.
A couple of statistics simply do not favor Watson on one of those narrow U.S. Open courses. He ranks first in driving distance and 104th in driving accuracy, per PGATour.com. He is also 104th in strokes gained putting.
If you can’t drive or putt the ball straight, you might not want to even show up at one of these events.
This year, Watson’s first day at Pinehurst No. 2 looked like he was still learning the game. He had five bogeys and a double bogey on a par five. Watson usually eats par fives for breakfast—not the other way around.
He ended the first day at 76, and on his second day, even a par-70 was not good enough to get him to the weekend.
In his last four U.S. Opens, he has missed two cuts, tied for 32nd and finished 63rd.
If he could develop a short game like that other lefty, Phil Mickelson, he would have an odds-on chance to win a U.S. Open title.
The Open Championship
But what about the British Open? Why can’t Watson just pound the ball down those open fairways and let the ball careen hundreds of yards?
If history is any indication of future success, Watson may always have issues on Open courses. Over the last five years, he has missed the cut three times and never finished better than 23rd.
Watson is among the greatest shapers of the ball the game has ever seen. Using his self-made swing, he has the uncanny and purely instinctual ability to work a ball around a tree or a bend with a decisive hook or a slice.
That skill has not served him well on the wind-swept, hard-pan courses of the British Open. Course strategy is paramount at an Open course where one needs to avoid the zillions of fairway bunkers in order to score well.
Famously, Tiger Woods, in his last Open Championship win in 2006 at Royal Liverpool, shed his driver in favor of long irons off the tee because he knew he needed to stay out of trouble in order to win.
It takes brains, not brawn, to win The Open Championship, as Tiger proved. Not to diminish Watson’s intellect, but his ego sometimes gets in the way of his decision-making.
Surely, he can knock a long iron as far as most pros can hit their drivers, so why not take the errancy out of his game, a la Tiger?
This year, Watson didn’t seem to be that committed to playing at Royal Liverpool. His down-home country style didn’t fit with the Brits either.
“There’s a thousand people in this fairway...I just want to play golf. A thousand people are in the fairway!” said Watson about the casual yet highly committed British fans.
Should Watson change his strategic and personal approach when traveling abroad, he may have a chance to win a British Open.
The PGA Championship
Unlike the other majors, the PGA Championship is not really known for a specific style of course.
The U.S. Open has its narrow fairways and high-cut rough around the greens. The Open Championship is usually played under dire weather conditions and brisk ocean breezes on bunker-laden courses.
The PGA is played at different courses throughout the country, so there is no particular rhyme or reason in terms of consistent layout or style.
Surely, Watson should be able to perform well in the last major of the year, which may just require him to grip it and rip it.
Not exactly. In 2010, he came in second place, and in 2012, he tied for 11th place. But he missed the cut in 2013 and had a disastrous week that plopped him into 65th place this year.
In fact, he acted out so petulantly that he had to apologize for his actions.
In this sense, it wasn't his driver or his putter that took him out of the game but his childlike emotions. Basically, he complained profanely about having to play in the rain. Not what one would call the actions of a champion.
The Wanamaker Cup is something Watson could win at some point in his career. He just has to want it.
It is amazing that Watson wins anything at all. His misshapen drives are a thing of constant wonder. That he has never taken a lesson is now golf legend. He finishes as awkwardly as he starts. But he has great hands and a wonderful sense of how to hit the ball. He is a naturally gifted athlete who happens to play golf.
In a way, he is the anti-Jim Furyk, who owns golf’s quirkiest swing. But unlike Watson, Furyk is the exemplar of consistency who never seems to miss a fairway or a green in regulation. Where Furyk is boringly repetitive, Watson is repetitively unpredictable.
So what is it about Augusta that makes Watson’s game so much more predictable?
It could be that the he feels comfortable in his native South. He obviously does fine with the crowds down there and has so far been ever the gentleman.
Yes, he has had his ups and downs at the Masters. But the boy from Bagdad has made the type of magic there on two separate occasions that even Ali Baba would appreciate.
When it comes down to it, Watson has to want to win at those venues not named the Masters. He has to shed the driver when necessary, rein in his emotions and try not to go for it on every occasion.
Should he actually be able to mature, Watson will be holding many future major trophies.
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