Bubba Watson, the quintessential outsider, finds himself back home atop Masters field

Bubba Watson, the quintessential outsider, finds himself back home atop Masters field

"This whole year is about rejoicing," says Bubba Watson. There will be plenty more if he continues the play that has him ahead by three shots at the Masters.
Robert Beck/Sports Illustrated

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Bubba Watson does not belong at Augusta National, but it is perfect for him. He is not supposed to be in the Masters at all, but it’s not surprising he leads the tournament. This is Bubba: a series of contradictions, a golfer with world-class skills and no coach, a ripped-jeans upbringing and black-tie game, and most importantly at the moment, exactly the right skill set to win a tournament he never imagined entering.

These are now the Bubba Masters until somebody takes them from him. We should not confuse this with the 2012 Bubba Masters, which he won. He grabbed that one with a preposterous hooked recovery shot in a playoff. This is different. He is in control after two rounds, thanks to a run of five straight birdies on the back nine, and anyway, this is a different Bubba.

“This whole year is about rejoicing,” he said after his 68 moved him clear of the field at 7-under.

Bubba is having fun and playing great golf again. Which came first? Don’t ask, man. This year is about rejoicing, not questioning.

Watson may not fit in with the moneyed class that runs Augusta, but his game is perfect for the course. It’s all about length and feel, and that’s Augusta.

“You can see why he’s had some success around here,” playing partner Luke Donald said. “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.”

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Watson said he started to enjoy this year’s Masters more than last year’s when he arrived at the Champions Dinner. Last year, he was the defending champion, which meant he got to choose the meal. There was some speculation that he would go Full Bubba on the menu – fried everything with white bread, maybe – to remind his fellow champions of his upbringing on Florida’s Gulf Coast, where his dad worked in construction and his mom held two jobs. But he went with grilled chicken, mashed potatoes, corn and macaroni & cheese.

He said he did not like the “media attention” that came with being the defending champion, and it was an interesting choice of words. Watson seems to enjoy attention, but not media attention. There is a difference. Attention is what fans give you. Media attention means questions like, “Why do you snap at your caddy when you mess up?”

Some people are not really meant to be in the public eye. Watson is one of them. He is one of the longest hitters in the field and possibly the least refined. And yet, he can’t help himself. A typical Bubba press conference turns into a therapy session with a laugh track. Some of his answers are like his tee shots – long and all over the place. But they are almost always revealing.

He was asked if he enjoyed the 2012 Masters win so much that it affected his play. His response: “Hell, yeah.”

“How many green jackets have you got?” he asked. “If you had one, you’d (enjoy it) for a year or two.”

As soon as he got his green jacket, he knew his career was a success, whatever else he did. He also had a newly adopted son, Caleb, and a million sponsors to please. He signed between 5,000 and 10,000 yellow flags at Ping headquarters.

This was worth it in some ways – I doubt he would trade a minute he spent with Caleb – but his golf game paid the bill. Watson struggled to concentrate on golf when he needed to concentrate on it. He is a lefty, but not Lefty; unlike Phil Mickelson, whose creative juices seem to flow best when he is doing six things at once on no sleep, Watson couldn’t quite handle all of it.

When he saw his name way down the FedEx Cup standings (38th) last fall and watched the Presidents Cup go on without him, he realized how far his game had fallen. He decided to have fun again. He said Friday that “as a kid, you don’t think about the bad days,” so why worry about a lousy round as an adult? Play golf and move on.

He essentially has a halftime lead now. There is so much more golf to play before he can get his second green jacket, but that string of five birdies was telling, partly because two of them came on par-3s, never a Watson strength. On the scorecard, it looks like he got hot. But Sergio Garcia, who played with him the last two days, said, “Everything was impressive. (The birdie run) just happened. “

That’s how Watson has to view it: It just happened, and it can happen again if he just hits good shots. Don’t think too much, and don’t worry about the fact that the seven-under 137 was very nearly an eight-under 136. Watson missed the green to the left on 18 Friday, and though he artfully chipped onto a mound and let it trickle down, he missed a short par putt. After shaking hands, he surveyed the hole again as he walked backward off the green.

It was the first time Watson has looked back in months.