Bubba Watson's golfing brain is underrated so discount his U.S. Open chances at your own risk

Bubba Watson’s golfing brain is underrated so discount his U.S. Open chances at your own risk

Bubba Watson watches his putt on the 6th hole during a U.S. Open practice round in Pinehurst, N.C., on Tuesday.
AP Photo/Charles Riedel

PINEHURST, N.C. — The United States Open is a chess match, Bubba Watson says.

Bubba doesn’t play chess, Bubba says.

Well, he will this week when the National Open returns to Pinehurst’s new-and-improved No. 2 course. How well can Bubba improvise at chess? We’ll find out. The remarkably talented Watson, with his homegrown swing, has figured out how to win two Masters, after all. He’s the only player capable of winning the Grand Slam this year, and while no one really expects him to go four for four, can you ever rule anything out with Bubba?

The man is as unpredictable as any golfer other than Phil Mickelson, and ought to usurp Phil’s former marketing slogan: What will Bubba do next? The question is as apt for him as it was (and still is) for Phil.

Watson is smart about golf, despite his small-town, hayseed image. (For which he can thank, at least in part, his “Golf Boys” wardrobe choice: overalls with no shirt.) He gets almost no credit for his course management, no doubt because of his unorthodox swing and because he intentionally curves shots far more than most players. You don’t win the Masters twice without having a firm grip on strategy. Bubba’s golfing brain is underrated.

In any event, he is here, ready to take on No. 2 and its challenges, and he already knows it’s not a grip-it-and-rip-it course, even though the USGA is going to throw a handful of 500-yard par-4 holes at him. It’s “a second-shot golf course” with challenging greens that he defines as “unfriendly.”

He’s right on both counts.

The funny thing is, you could describe Augusta National the same way and, oh yeah, Watson has won two of the last three Masters.

Discount Bubba’s chances at your own risk.

“There are a lot of times I’m going to lay back and I’m going to have 200-plus yards into par-4 greens,” he said Tuesday. “So for me, it’s the second shots that are going to matter most. It’s iffy if you hit into — I don’t know what they call it, the rough dirt, sand. You don’t know what kind of lie you’re going to get. So I’m going to lay back and have longer shots into the holes. It’s going to be a tough test. In four days, I’ll tell you how much I really like it or how much I really hate it. And hopefully it’s four days, not two days.”

That’s another endearing part of Bubba’s personality. He’s got the humility gene most of the time, even though as one of the game’s longest hitters you’d expect him to have a little swagger about his power. He knows he’s long, you know he’s long, and he knows you know he’s long. That’s good enough for him.

In his first practice round Monday, Bubba said he hit a good drive on the par-4 16th hole, about 295 yards off the tee, and yet he still had 247 yards to the pin. “So for me to hit driver and have a 3-iron into a par-4…” he said, leaving that thought unfinished but clear. “The course wears you down. The U.S. Open brings that out. It is different than anything we ever play. This time they’re doing it without rough, but they’re doing it with the greens.”

Pinehurst’s classic Donald Ross greens repel many shots. They’re generally shaped like inverted bowls — slightly elevated and mown around the sides to allow balls to roll off them and keep going, leaving players with 20- and 30-yard chip shots that require a high level of skill. They’ll use the putter, flop a lob wedge, bump-and-run a chip, putt with a club that has a little loft such as a hybrid or a metal wood — they have options.

Bubba is a creative shotmaker with his long game, and he can be creative around the greens, too. His short game doesn’t get enough credit, either, because he’s such a show-stopping bomber off the tee.

“I thought Sunday at Augusta was one of the greatest putting performances,” said NBC golf analyst Johnny Miller. “What did he have, 12 one-putts or something? He made every putt he needed to make inside 10 feet. That’s got to build his confidence. He’s dead in the prime of his career, that’s all there is to it. If he keeps improving, he could be No. 1 in the world.”

The stats don’t lie. Who ranks first in putting on the PGA Tour from 15 to 20 feet and from 15-25 feet? Bubba. He’s 10th in putts from inside five feet. He doesn’t seem like the National Open kind of guy, a fairway-and-greens player, yet he finished fifth at the 2007 Open at Oakmont and he currently ranks sixth in greens hit in regulation. Add that consistency to his short game and to his power — he’s No. 1 in most drives over 300 yards, at 61 percent — and you’ve got a potentially dominant player.

Bubba has two wins this year, the Masters and the Northern Trust Open at Riviera, but he could easily have five. He lost a playoff to Kevin Stadler in Phoenix, he was second at Doral and he was third at the Memorial Tournament. Let’s say Bubba wins two of those three close calls. Are we having a debate about who’s the favorite at Pinehurst this week? No, we most definitely are not.

He has a soft spot in his heart for the U.S. Open, since finishing fifth at Oakmont in 2007 got him into Augusta for the first time. “I got to call my dad on Father’s Day and tell him that we’re going to the Masters,” he said.

That the U.S. Open is a big deal to Bubba is a big boost for his chances; he’s a player who seems to play better when he is emotionally invested in an event. No, he may not fit the traditional profile of a U.S. Open winner, but what traditional profile has he ever fit? He’s Bubba.

Said Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee, “He’s not a great putter and he’s not a great scrambler — I’m not saying those are flaws, they’re just not strengths. Bubba has a chance with [the height of] his shots and his ability to hit short shots into these greens and do things nobody has ever seen before. Every time he tees it up, he can do that.”

The biggest challenge any U.S. Open contestant faces is staying patient, especially after a couple of bogeys, and playing the holes the way the USGA’s set-up forces you to play them. Sometimes, the best a player can do is hit it to 30 feet and try to two-putt. Bubba knows that. Can he keep that up and stay that patient for 72 holes? Bubba doesn’t know that.

“At a U.S. Open, I’m trying to beat the golf course,” he said. “It’s a chess match and even though I don’t like chess, you have to plot it this way and that way and do the right things. I haven’t beat the golf course yet in a U.S. Open. I’m still trying to get that one week where I beat it.”