OAKMONT, Pa. — As one supremely confident lefthander exited the stage Friday, another stepped into the spotlight.
While Phil Mickelson missed the cut at 11-over-par, Bubba Watson, a 6-foot-3, 180-pound long hitter from the Florida Panhandle, shot one-over 71 and stands at one-over for the tournament, one off the pace of Argentine Angel Cabrera.
Like Mickelson, Watson's wild drives and spectacular recoveries have at times suggested valor is the better part of discretion. But that's pretty much where the similarities end. Mickelson is 36. Watson, by virtue of his 11/5/1978 birthday, lists his age as "28.59" in the U.S. Open media guide. (Do the math.)
Phil has Butch Harmon; Bubba has Bubba. He's entirely self-taught, never had a lesson and never will, and if he ever does, he says he'll quit.
His wife, the 6-foot-4 former WNBA hoopster Angie Ball, likes to say: "Bubba likes to be Bubba."
And there's no one else like him. "The first junior tournament I won, we were paired together in the final round," Bryce Molder told me for a January 2006 story in GOLF Magazine. "A cameraman told my mom that he couldn't take Bubba's picture because his socks were too pink. He had on shorts and these hot-pink knee socks you could see from two fairways over, and he'd spray-painted the top of his driver pink. That's just Bubba."
That's just Bubba became a mantra on the Nationwide Tour, just as it was at the University of Georgia. Nick Cassini, one of Watson's college teammates, remembers a team meeting when Coach Chris Haack told the Bulldogs they'd be doing a fitness regimen that included yoga. Bubba looked confused.
"Hey coach," he said. "I'm not religious."
It's all part of Bubba lore, as are his gaudy statistics. Watson has led the Tour in driving distance since he arrived in 2006 and said he knocks it past Tiger Woods "every time" when they play practice rounds together. But he's no circus act despite his 44-inch, pink-shafted, metal-tipped, 460 cc Ping driving bludgeon.
He contended in the very first tournament of his rookie year, the Sony Open at the not-so-bomber-friendly Waialae Country Club, and made over $1 million on the season. With four top-10 finishes in 15 starts, including a T2 at the Shell Houston Open, he's already gone over that number this year.
"It's been nothing different this week, other than just staying patient," said Ted Scott, who used to work for Paul Azinger but has been Watson's caddie since the two hooked up last August. "He's been hitting it good all year. We've just had one bad hole every tournament."
At the Memorial a few weeks ago, Watson was faced with a low-percentage shot over a mound and under a tree branch on the par-5 15th hole. Instead of making the sensible decision to take his medicine and punch out, he tried to thread the needle. Instead, he poked a hole in his scorecard with a quadruple-bogey 9.
"He has so much belief and confidence in himself, he's like Mickelson or Tiger," Scott continued. "He's like, 'You think I can hit it through that fork in the tree?' Well, yeah, you can, but … You can't boss him around or tie strings to him. He's very good at what he does, but you have to think a little more out here. On the Nationwide Tour the greens are softer and a little less severe, and you can go for it more."
After making birdie on the 13th hole Friday, Watson walked to the 14th tee. He only had to move his ball 358 yards straight downwind, but he said to Scott, "I think I should hit driver. I can get there."
Watson said after the round that he was joking, but Scott's response was crystal clear as he handed him a 6-iron. "He goes, 'I know you can get there, but this is what we're hitting,' " Watson said, cracking up a roomful of reporters. "He's got a little baby, so he's got to eat, too. It's hard because it's more fun to me to hit the driver. When I'm home that's all I hit no matter if the hole is long, short, it doesn't matter."
Still, when Bubba tries a miraculous recovery shot, he pulls it off more often than not, and that's been the case at Oakmont. He's hit a modest 15 of 28 fairways and 21 of 36 greens through his first two rounds, but he had an economical 27 putts Thursday and 29 on Friday.
Watson grew up hitting plastic balls around his parents' house in Bagdad, Fla., near Pensacola. "I learned to work the ball left or right as I went around," he said.
Boo Weekley, who played junior and high school golf with Watson, and who played with him Thursday and Friday, said Watson was always the kind of player who is, "liable to hit a 10- or 15-yard hook with his lob wedge or a 30-yard cut with his driver."
It's just Bubba being Bubba. His father taught him first to swing as hard as he could; they'd figure out the rest later. That's exactly what's happened. The late Ping rep Billy Weir, who lived on the golf course Watson grew up on, gave him clubs as a kid and became like a second father to him, but otherwise Watson's flown solo.
"Bubba likes to keep it simple and figure everything out himself," Angie said. Watson and Ball met at Georgia over an "around the world" shooting contest, but poor Bubba never got to take a shot when Angie made 10 in a row.
He had a falling out with Coach Haack when Watson whiffed a tap-in at the NCAAs and the Bulldogs missed the cut by a stroke, and he didn't play on the traveling team his senior year. He later said of Haack, "He didn't like me. It was obvious."
Turns out a little defiance can go a long way in an individual sport like golf, but there's a hole in Watson's resume: He's never won. Not on the Nationwide tour, not in the Show. The Bagdad bomber slowly moved up the Nationwide money list from 63rd in 2003 to 37th in '04 to 21st in '05, earning his call-up to the PGA Tour. Can he break through at Oakmont?
It seems unlikely that such a risk-taker would survive a place where calamity lurks around every corner, but then Mickelson himself almost won last year.
"It's going to be tough," Watson said. "It was tough for me today. I'm not good on afternoon rounds [where you're] sitting around all morning. I got up this morning and checked the coverage and waited around all day thinking about how the bad shots were going to be and the good shots were going to be, but I hung in there. And if I can do that the next two days, it will be a real good thing."