Bubba Watson tries to play smart and pays the price at Pinehurst No. 2

Bubba Watson
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Bubba Watson left his driver in the bag several times during the opening round at Pinehurst No. 2.

PINEHURST, N.C. -- Bubba Watson is one of the most creative players on the PGA Tour. Besides another notable Lefty, Watson can see shots no other player would dare to pull off, through tiny windows no golfer would dare aim at.

That player was absent during the opening round of the U.S. Open.

Pinehurst No. 2 completely psyched Watson out from tee to green Thursday, and the man who could do no wrong two months ago at Augusta National finished with a 6-over 76.

“The golf course is better than me right now,” Watson lamented after his round.

He’s right. But he brought this upon himself.

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Watson is the longest driver in the game by a wide margin, averaging 314.2 yards off the tee this year. He owns the category – more than Phil owns the short game and more than Snedeker rules the putting greens.

That’s why his strategy is such a poor decision.

You might have heard, Pinehurst No. 2 doesn’t have traditional rough. Natural sandy areas filled with wiregrass plants and pinecones field errant drives, and the resulting lies are seemingly random. Watson decided to minimize his chances of finding an unlucky lie in the sand by attempting to avoid it at all costs. That involved shelving his driver. Watson wanted to be smart and put the focus on his second shot, play the averages.

He didn’t accomplish his goals.

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Even though he pulled driver once more than he initially planned, Watson only hit 57.14 percent (8 of 14) of fairways. He said he tried to be aggressive, but also tried to lay back. He said he was not good at laying up. He said he tried to play the golf course like everyone else, “the way it was meant to be played.”

“It really wasn't changing anything different than anybody else in the tournament,” Watson. “It's not that I'm trying to play safer or anything like that, that's how the golf course is designed is to play it that way.”

Has Watson ever played a golf course the way it’s designed to be played?

Did Bob Jones and Alister MacKenzie envision someone slapping a 366-yard bomb over the trees of No. 13 leading to a half-wedge into the green? Doubtful. That’s what makes Bubba the player he is. That’s why he is a two-time Masters champion. He plays on a different golf course than the rest of the field.

Yet on Wednesday before the tournament, all he could do is point out some of the par-4s measured more than 500 yards and three par-3s measured more than 200 yards. The greens were “unfair.” It was a long course that was all about the second shot and had tricky greens. Sound familiar? Bubba dominated an Augusta course that fits the exact same profile without the pre-tournament complaining.

Other bombers didn’t feel the need to shelve the driver Thursday. Dustin Johnson hit irons on Nos. 1 and 3 but otherwise pounded driver all day. He shot a 69 and is tied for sixth. Rory McIlroy hit 13 of 14 fairways, and playing partner Graeme McDowell noted how aggressive McIlroy was off the tee with the driver. He shot a 71 and is in 36th.

Watson is tied for 122nd.

“Not saying it's the right strategy, but hopefully in four days I can tell you it was a great strategy,” Watson said before the tournament.

After day one, we already have our answer.

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